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Chicago's Top Doctor Discusses Possible Impacts of COVID-19 on Brain Function

NBCUniversal Media, LLC

Amid concerns that cases of COVID-19 could potentially cause long-term issues, including a loss of taste and smell, lowered energy and other neurological symptoms, Chicago’s top doctor says that efforts are underway to learn more about those ailments, and about ways to potentially treat them.

Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, pointed out Thursday that the loss of taste and smell, two commonly-known symptoms of COVID-19, are in fact neurological symptoms, and are similar to other ailments, such as “brain-fog,” confusion, dizziness and muscle weakness, that have been reported in seriously ill COVID patients.

“People sometimes take a long time to recover their sense of taste or smell, or it can take a long time even after they’ve recovered from the acute phase of COVID to feel like they’ve gotten their energy back,” she said. “Sometimes for weeks and even months, people are reporting these long-standing chronic health issues.”

According to Harvard University, COVID-19 has been observed to cause a wide variety of neurological symptoms, including loss of smell and taste, muscle weakness, tingling or numbness in the hands and feet, dizziness, confusion, seizures and even strokes.

A study in China, cited by the university, found that approximately one-third of individuals with moderate-to-severe cases of COVID suffered from one or more neurological ailments. Those symptoms were more common as the severity of cases worsened, the study found.

Those findings were echoed by a study at the University of Pittsburgh, which found that approximately 82% of a group of 3,744 hospitalized COVID patients had reported, or been observed to have, neurological symptoms.

The study also found that individuals with preexisting neurological conditions, including chronic migraines, Alzheimers, dementia and other conditions, were twice as likely to develop neurological complications after contracting COVID.

While scientists have found that COVID does cause neurological symptoms, what remains unclear is how it does so, and how to address those issues. Studies have shown that the virus has difficulty getting past the blood-brain barrier, a mechanism that helps protect the brain from infection, but that the virus can still get into the brain in small amounts, potentially through the lining of the nasal cavity.

Arwady says that there are several studies also ongoing in the Chicago area to both examine the neurological effects of COVID, along with ways to potentially treat and to help so-called “long haulers,” who have to deal with the disease through long stretches of time.

“We’re still learning about some of the neurological symptoms and what’s making that happen,” she said. “It’s going to be these longer cohort studies doing the comparisons between people who have had the longer effects from COVID, and those who have not, to probably understand it.”

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