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Even Mild COVID Can Do This To Your Brain, Experts Say

"Long COVID" continues to perplex the experts.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

More than two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, "Long COVID" continues to perplex the experts. The chronic syndrome some people develop following a bout with the coronavirus can involve a variety of symptoms, can be debilitating, and as of yet has no clear cause or effective treatment. What doctors know is that Long COVID is very real, and even people with mild cases of the illness can see these destructive effects on the brain. Read on to find out more—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.

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Even Mild COVID Can Cause Multi-Faceted Brain Damage

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According to a new study from the University of Oxford, even mild cases of COVID are associated with damage to brain tissue, shrinkage in brain regions that influence the sense of smell, a loss in the brain's overall volume, and a deficit in cognitive function lasting for at least the first few months after a coronavirus infection.

For the study, researchers looked at brain scans taken both before and after participants contracted the novel coronavirus. Most subjects of the study had mild cases of COVID-19.  

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Damage Equivalent To This Much Aging

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That loss of brain volume is equivalent to at least one year of normal aging, said Gwenaëlle 

Douaud, an associate professor of neurosciences at Oxford and the paper's lead author. "It is brain damage, but it is possible that it is reversible," she said. "But it is still relatively scary because it was in mildly infected people."

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What The Study Found

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Utilizing health data from the United Kingdom Biobank—which included tens of thousands of brain MRIs of British residents, along with lifestyle information and cognitive function test results—the scientists looked at 401 people between 51 and 81 years old who had tested positive for COVID. Only 15 had been hospitalized with the disease.

Those people got a second brain scan, performed an average of five months after contracting COVID. The scans were compared to a control group of people who hadn't gotten COVID, but who matched other health risk factors like obesity, blood pressure, smoking, and diabetes. 

The researchers found that people who'd had COVID had less gray matter and more abnormalities in their brain tissue, and scored lower on cognitive function tests. Older people experienced greater rates of decline in all those areas.

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Why Does This Happen?

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Researchers aren't sure if the damage is permanent. The brain is can heal and rebuild itself, even in older people. But the study results suggest that COVID can cause damage to the nervous system.

"This study provides the most definitive clinical data available to date that SARS-CoV-2 directly or indirectly damages nerves and that this, in turn, can have systemic effects, including changes in the brain," Dr. Steven Deeks, a veteran HIV researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, told NBC News. "It contributes to an emerging theme that nerve damage was common during the first few waves of the pandemic." 

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How to Stay Safe Out There

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Follow the fundamentals and help end this pandemic, no matter where you live—get vaccinated ASAP; if you live in an area with low vaccination rates, wear an N95 face mask, don't travel, social distance, avoid large crowds, don't go indoors with people you're not sheltering with (especially in bars), practice good hand hygiene, and to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Michael Martin
Michael Martin is a New York City-based writer and editor whose health and lifestyle content has also been published on Beachbody and Openfit. A contributing writer for Eat This, Not That!, he has also been published in New York, Architectural Digest, Interview, and many others. Read more about Michael