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Effects of Covid-19 on the human brain

Since early 2020 the world has had to come to grips with a new virus, how it is transmitted, how it can be treated and what damage it causes to the body.

Initially it was thought COVID-19 affected primarily the respiratory system and caused a high temperature, but as time has gone on it has been documented worldwide that patients are in addition experiencing a variety of symptoms related to the brain.

This article considers the effect the virus has on the brain, and how day to day life for those living with a permanent brain injury has changed during the Covid-19 pandemic.

EFFECT OF COVID-19 ON THE HUMAN BRAIN

Studies and reports have shown that some patients suffering from COVID-19 experience conditions which are linked to the effects the virus has on the brain. These include:

•             Confusion or delirium

•             Seizures/strokes

•             Loss of smell and taste

•             Headaches

•             Changes in behaviour and cognitive functioning

•             Inability to speak

•             Fatigue

An associate director of the John Hopkins Precision Medicine Center of Excellence for Neurocritical Care has summarised the 4 keyways it is thought COVID-19 impacts the brain:

1.            The virus entering the brain causing a sudden and severe infection

2.            The virus sends a person’s immune system into overdrive resulting in an inflammatory response which in turns causes tissue damage

3.            The multiple ways the virus disrupts a person’s normal bodily functions causes or contributes to brain dysfunction

4.            The virus appears to disrupt the blood clotting mechanism, making the blood clot more easily thus leading to conditions such as strokes

Whilst there is still a lot that is not known or is uncertain about COVID-19, what is very clear is that this is an illness which cannot and should not be underestimated. We are only at the beginning of trying to understand the effects on the brain, as well as other parts of the body, and for now can only speculate on the long-term consequences.

THE EFFECT OF THE COVID-19 CRISIS ON PEOPLE LIVING WITH BRAIN INJURIES

Most people around the world have felt the impact on their normal day to day life because of the virus. At the start of the pandemic during the lockdown period, people in the UK had to stay at home. Many of us transferred where possible to home working and home schooling and were unable to enjoy our usual hobbies and socialising with friends and family. I suspect many of us found this to be a challenge for one reason or another, but for people living with brain injuries the impact of COVID-19 has been profound.

The lock down and shielding, particularly in the early weeks of the pandemic, meant a sudden and immediate loss of people’s external support network.

Support groups for people living with brain injury and their families, such as those run by the groups and branches around the country affiliated to Headway and the Brain Injury Association, have had to suspend face to face support. This part of their service is invaluable and has been sorely missed. It is a similar story with activity groups and therapy groups (e.g. art, music, horse riding etc). For people who can use the internet, online classes and activities have been set up as a replacement and Headway have been sending out bespoke weekly activity packs to people who prefer written literature or printed pictures.

Advice services have become either online, text or telephone based. Whilst it is fantastic that such important resources can still be offered, for some people, having a meeting on the telephone is far more difficult than speaking to someone in person in the same room. In addition, not everyone will necessarily have access to online platforms.

Rehabilitation which can be so crucial for people trying to recover or manage their brain injuries has been unable to proceed as normal, be it physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy and so on.

Routine is particularly important for someone living with a brain injury, to help avoid feelings of confusion, uncertainty, and anxiety. That routine in the context of changing advice with respect to COVID has been severely affected.

Social isolation from friends and family as well as other people who are dealing with brain injuries has also been a struggle. In a recent study conducted by Headway two thirds of respondents reported a negative impact on their psychological well-being and mental health during lockdown and nearly two thirds of respondents said they feared for and had negative feelings about their future for the same reason. It is well known that social isolation can exacerbate the effects a brain injury can have on a person’s behaviour, emotions, and psychological well-being.

We have come a long way since the early days of 2020 in finding ways to adapt and manage daily life and our understanding of COVID-19 is improving. Times are still difficult for many people but with the world working on a vaccine and better treatment modalities, hope is on the horizon.

If you are reading this and you are either living with a brain injury or caring for someone who does, feels they need advice or support the brain injury charity, Headway, can be contacted on 0808 800 2244 or by email on [email protected]

Posted on Jan 12th, 2021 by Anthony Heywood

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