Toronto: Long COVID is associated with reduced brain oxygen levels, declined cognition and heightened levels of depression and anxiety, according to new research studying the impacts of the disease. Researchers from the University of Waterloo, Canada, combined the results of two new parallel studies – a laboratory study involving cognitive testing and imaging of oxygen levels in the brain, and a national population survey of Canadians in 2021 and 2022.
The laboratory study found that individuals who had experienced symptomatic COVID-19 illness performed worse on two computer tasks – one measured inhibition and the other impulsive decision-making, the research describing the findings said.
Compared to those who had not been infected, people who had been infected showed a lack of increase in oxygen saturation in an area of the brain that is normally engaged during one of the tasks, the study said.
“We are the first to show reduced oxygen uptake in the brain during a cognitive task in the months following a symptomatic COVID-19 infection,” said Peter Hall, lead author and researcher at the University of Waterloo.
“This is important because a lack of sufficient oxygen supply is thought to be one of the mechanisms by which COVID-19 may cause cognitive impairment,” said Hall.
The second study in this paper, a population survey of more than 2,000 Canadians aged 18 to 56, examined the relationships among COVID, cognitive function and psychiatric symptoms.
Respondents who had COVID reported difficulty concentrating and problems with inhibition, as well as increased symptoms of anxiety and depression, the research said.
These effects appeared to be marginally stronger among unvaccinated individuals and were still detectable after controlling for how long ago respondents were infected, the research said.
Previous studies have shown a link between COVID and test performance, self-reported cognitive symptoms and differences in brain structure measured by MRI, but not oxygenation changes in the brain, the paper said.
Older women were more affected than others in the case of the brain imaging outcomes, the paper said.
“We don’t know for sure why this was the case, but there have been other studies showing that older women are especially impacted by some post-COVID-19 syndrome symptoms,” Hall said.
In the case of the population study, “It appears that, regardless of gender and other demographic factors, COVID-19 infection at baseline is correlated with increased problems with emotion regulation six months later: depression, anxiety and agitation.
“In some cases, we are talking about symptom levels that are at or above recommended as cut-off scores for psychiatric diagnoses,” said Hall.
The studies were conducted during earlier waves of the pandemic. The researchers did not examine whether Omicron and later variants have the same effects on the brain as earlier variants.