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COVID Symptoms To Watch Out For, Says NIH Study

Brain damage may be the result of the body’s inflammatory reaction to the virus.
FACT CHECKED BY Alek Korab
Depressed woman suffering from headache, lying in bed

Over the last year, health experts and researchers have established that COVID-19 can impact the neurological system. However, it is still unclear exactly how the infection wreaks havoc on the brain, resulting in curious symptoms including delirium, fatigue, headaches and loss of sense of smell and taste and even causing strokes.

Now, a new study claims to be one step closer to establishing a relationship between the virus and the brain, finding that while it does in fact do damage to it, it is not the result of a direct viral attack. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had Coronavirus

COVID Causes an Inflammatory Response, Which Can Affect the Brain, Study Shows

The study, conducted by the National Institutes of Health and published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that while those who died as a result of the virus sometimes had thinning and leaky brain blood vessels, there was no sign of infection in the tissues, suggesting the damage was not a result of a direct viral infection. 

"We found that the brains of patients who contract infection from SARS-CoV-2 may be susceptible to microvascular blood vessel damage. Our results suggest that this may be caused by the body's inflammatory response to the virus," Avindra Nath, senior author on the study said in a press release courtesy of the NIH. "We hope these results will help doctors understand the full spectrum of problems patients may suffer so that we can come up with better treatments."

Researchers analyzed brain tissue samples of 19 patients from five to 73 years old, all who died anywhere from hours to two months after contracting the virus. Many of them had more than one risk factor, including obesity, diabetes and other cardiovascular issues. They used a high-powered magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner, up to ten times more sensitive than the average MRI scanner, observing multiple bright and dark spots, which indicate inflammation and bleeding, in both regions of the brain. 

"We were completely surprised. Originally, we expected to see damage that is caused by a lack of oxygen. Instead, we saw multifocal areas of damage that is usually associated with strokes and neuroinflammatory diseases," said Dr. Nath.

Upon further investigation, they found thinning blood vessels leaking protein into the brain, which triggered an immune reaction. Additionally, they noted that the dark spots had clotted and leaky blood vessels with no immune response. However, no evidence of the virus was found in tissue samples. 

"So far, our results suggest that the damage we saw may not have been not caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus directly infecting the brain," Dr. Nath stated. "In the future, we plan to study how COVID-19 harms the brain's blood vessels and whether that produces some of the short- and long-term symptoms we see in patients."

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Symptoms to Watch Out For

"Nationwide, a small number of people who recovered from COVID-19 are reporting neurological concerns such as headache, dizziness, lingering loss of smell or taste, muscle weakness, nerve damage, and trouble thinking or concentrating — sometimes called 'COVID fog' or 'brain fog,'" reports Danbury Hospital. Delirium has been reported too. "There's still much to learn about COVID-19 because it's a new virus, including possible long-term neurological complications. What we do know is that it's important to talk with your healthcare clinician if you have any health concerns after recovering from the virus."

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How to Survive This Pandemic

As for yourself, follow the public health fundamentals and help end this surge, no matter where you live—wear a face mask, social distance, avoid large crowds, don't go indoors with people you're not sheltering with (especially in bars), practice good hand hygiene, get vaccinated when it becomes available to you, 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.