A recent study from Northwestern Medicine, a non-profit healthcare organization in Chicago, has peeled back another layer of the long COVID enigma. Their latest research, published in the esteemed Annals of Neurology, uncovers the varying forms of long-term neurological complications faced by COVID-19 survivors.
The study evaluated the first 600 long COVID patients at Northwestern's dedicated Neuro COVID-19 Clinic. They found that those who were hospitalized due to acute COVID-19 pneumonia encountered a wider spectrum of cognitive impairments and a concerning unawareness of their brain fog. In contrast, those who recovered at home reported struggles primarily with focus and concentration.
Dr. Igor Koralnik, a neuroinfectious disease scientist at Northwestern Medicine, expressed astonishment at the distinct cognitive disruptions observed, hinting at separate biological origins and pathways for long COVID in these patients.
The clinic observed an average of seven neurological symptoms per patient, with a staggering 91% reporting over four symptoms, including brain fog, headaches, dizziness, and sensory complications like loss of smell and taste.
Disturbingly, hospitalized patients exhibited more pronounced neurological examination irregularities and faced greater challenges in processing speed, attention, and working memory tasks. Their counterparts who managed recovery at home showed deficits primarily in attention.
But it wasn't just the mind that bore the brunt. A plethora of other symptoms like fatigue, anxiety, insomnia, and respiratory and cardiac complications were prevalent, with the more severe cases experiencing heightened incidences of breathlessness and chest pains.
Demographics painted their own story – with the hospitalized group being older, more diverse, and having more pre-existing health conditions. In contrast, the non-hospitalized were often younger, predominantly female, and had a higher predisposition to mental health issues before COVID-19.
Dr. Koralnik's comment on the potential causes of these cognitive struggles is as fascinating as it is worrisome. For the hospitalized, the damage might stem from hypoxemia or a cytokine storm wreaking havoc on the brain, while in non-hospitalized women, an autoimmune response might be at play.
The study's implications are vast, with long COVID now ranking as the third most prevalent neurological disorder in the U.S.. Its impact on quality of life is profound, sidelining an estimated one million Americans from the workforce.