Brain Study explores lasting impacts of COVID-19

Neuroscientists exploring the lasting impacts of COVID-19 on the brain hope their newest study will provide answers for health-care professionals and improved care for millions of patients around the globe.

The COVID-19 Brain Study looks to recruit 50,000 individuals who received a confirmed positive diagnosis of the virus in order to answer pressing questions about the disease’s direct and indirect effects on the brain. The study is a collaboration between Western, the University of Toronto and Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

“The problem is a bit like when governments were deciding to enter lockdown – timing is everything,” said Adrian Owen, a Cognitive Neuroscience and Imaging professor at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry. “We need to start collecting this data now. We can’t start looking at this issue in a year’s time because if there are cognitive impairments, and we know there will be, it’s going to be too late.”

As COVID-19 spread, the international health-care response overwhelmingly focused on diagnosis, contact tracing, containment and supportive care. Research also targeted these areas, especially on improving testing and vaccine development.

So far, little work has been done on the potential neurological effects and longer-term impacts of the disease. That is an important gap to start spanning immediately, according to researchers.

“A year from now, we will have more than eight million people worldwide recovering from COVID-19. So, we may also have eight million people with short- and long-term cognitive problems,” Owen said.

For the new study, Owen has partnered with Dr. Rick Swartz, a stroke neurologist and cognitive scientist from Sunnybrook and the University of Toronto. Owen and Swartz started working together in 2011, shortly after the British-born neuroscientist moved to Western from the University of Cambridge and have worked on various cases and research projects over the years.

The team is turning to patients to explore many unanswered questions: Does COVID-19 infection result in significant cognitive impairment? Are there interactions with sex, age and medical risk factors that result in greater impact?

“We also need to understand whether COVID-19 patients are getting better or worse over time,” Swartz said. “And is it only some patients? For example, is it only those who were ventilated or sedated? This study will allow us to ask these relevant questions on a global scale and to inform efforts to improve recovery and long-term function for the millions of COVID-19 survivors around the world.”

Owen said the pandemic has seen an unprecedented spike in ICU demand. Patients who exit the ICU can suffer from a spectrum of physical, functional and neuropsychological issues known as ‘post-intensive care syndrome’ (PICS).

In a 2019 study published by PlosOne, Owen Lab researchers showed that cognitive impairments in daily function are common as a result of ICU visits. Nearly all patients are cognitively impaired at the time of ICU discharge. Two-thirds are not back to their baseline function after six months and roughly half have cognitive impairment years later.

“ICU survivors are vulnerable to cognitive impairment. So, as the number of recovered COVID-19 patients continues to climb, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that getting sent home from the ICU is not the end for these people. It’s just the beginning of their recovery,” Owen stressed.

The study is available in English, French and Spanish.

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