COVID-19 could cause long-term cognitive and memory impacts

Cognitive and memory outcomes post COVID-19 within a large community cohort.

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A new study led by Imperial College London revealed that people with COVID-19 experience subtle difficulties with memory and thinking abilities compared to those without the virus. These cognitive issues persist even in individuals who initially exhibited lingering symptoms that have since improved.

The research revealed that hospitalization, persistent long-term symptoms, and infection with previous virus strains aggravated the observed health issues. The findings have been published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Over 140,000 people who had COVID-19 participated in the Imperial College-led REACT Long COVID study. They used Cognition, an online platform, to complete cognitive tests that measured subtle changes in memory, reasoning, and other brain functions.

The study’s large sample size and specific tests enabled researchers to identify factors contributing to cognitive difficulties after COVID-19, accounting for variables such as age and underlying health conditions.

A year after contracting COVID-19, individuals may experience persistent memory and cognitive difficulties, mainly if they developed long-term COVID, required hospitalization, or contracted an early variant. Notably, even those whose symptoms subsided before the cognitive assessment exhibited similar minor impairments.

These long-term impacts on cognitive function have raised concerns, and this study provides valuable data from a large cohort. The study revealed specific impairments in memory, especially in picture recall. Additionally, tasks involving planning and logical reasoning, such as puzzle-solving and idea explanation, were also affected.

First author of the study, Professor Adam Hampshire, from the Department of Brain Sciences at Imperial College London, said: “The potential long-term effects of COVID-19 on cognitive function have been a concern for the public, healthcare professionals, and policymakers, but until now it has been difficult to measure them in a large population sample objectively.”

“By using our online platform to measure multiple aspects of Cognition and memory at a large scale, we were able to detect small but measurable deficits in cognitive task performance. We also found that people were likely affected differently depending on illness duration, virus variant, and hospitalization.”

According to Professor Paul Elliott, people with long-lasting COVID-19 symptoms that eventually improve can expect their cognitive abilities to recover similarly to those with short-lived illnesses.

The cognitive impact of COVID-19 appears to have diminished since the pandemic’s start, with fewer reported long-term symptoms and reduced cognitive effects in people infected during the Omicron variant wave. However, monitoring the potential long-term health and mental impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic remains crucial, given the significant number of individuals affected.

COVID-19 can have lasting impacts on thinking and memory, even in people who have mild cases. Healthcare systems should focus on providing complete care and support for people who have recovered from COVID-19, including regular tests for cognitive function and individualized treatments to address any problems found.

Journal reference:

  1. Adam Hampshire, Adriana Azor, et al., Cognition and Memory after Covid-19 in a Large Community Sample. The New England Journal of Medicine. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa2311330.
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