Western-led study hammers home severity of post-recovery COVID troubles | CBC News

A study led by Western University researchers shows more proof that respiratory problems and fever may be just the beginning of COVID-19 complications felt post-recovery and in long COVID cases.

Researchers leading the study observed and monitored nearly 500 people who had recovered from confirmed cases of COVID-19. This was done with help from collaborators at the University of Cambridge, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, and the University of Ottawa. The findings, published by Cell Reports Medicine, show noticeable mental impairments and other cognitive effects in people who recovered from the virus.

“I suppose one of the most interesting is that we’ve been able to unpack really what people mean by brain fog. You know, when people report suffering from long COVID, they say they don’t really feel like they can concentrate anymore,” said Adrian Owen, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at Western University, and one of the principal investigators.

Patients who recovered from COVID-19 reported difficulty with concentration and decision-making and decreases in the speed with which they were able to solve problems. Owen said one thing he expected to see — a decrease in patients’ memory — wasn’t observed.

“People’s ability to make decisions and the speed [at which they] thought were really quite profoundly affected,” said Owen, who added the patterns of cognitive impairment in the patients in question were remarkably similar to that of healthy study participants who were sleep-deprived.

Correlations with severity

Severity of illness is a factor researchers continue to pay attention to, specifically with regard to Owen’s study. He told CBC News, his findings indicate that there is a direct link between the severity of COVID-19 symptoms and post-COVID outcomes such as impacts on cognitive function. 

“That doesn’t mean that people who had mild symptoms or who were even asymptomatic didn’t have any cognitive symptoms. We could detect impairments even in those people who had very mild infections or who were asymptomatic,” said Owen. “They were just much worse in those who had severe disease.”

Mental health prospects

Participants in the study also reported significantly higher levels of depression and anxiety, with 30 per cent meeting the clinical criteria for either one or both conditions. However, Owen said he noticed a dissociation between severity and mental health-related symptoms.

“When we looked at mental health, they weren’t linked to the severity of the initial disease and that’s an interesting dissociation between the cognitive impairments and those,” he explained.

This may mean mental health outcomes people involved in the study experienced were more related to living through the COVID-19 pandemic than being directly related to having been infected with COVID-19.

I think we are looking at a potentially enormous problem for society going forward.– Adrian Owen

‘This is a time bomb’

Owen said at its core, this issue could represent a future challenge for the entire world. With total confirmed COVID-19 cases approaching 630 million, he explained even a small minority of cases which result in cognitive impairment that affects work or school performance, or the ability to function well in daily life, could amount to a staggering number of people in need.

“I really think this is something we need to get on top of right now and prepare for something that might be just as bad as the pandemic was to start with,” he said.

Owen added, his study has yet to observe a correlation between time elapsed since recovery, and the lessening of symptoms. He said that could mean effects are long-term rather than short-term. 

“This may not be something that goes away very quickly, and perhaps that’s the fairest way I can put it, but we’ll know a bit more in the future when we follow these people for a bit longer,” said Owen.

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