Low levels of oxygen and the virus’ effect on the body's blood-clotting system have also been studied as potential explanations.
While the study's findings are significant, Petersen says there's no need for unnecessary alarm. Just because you've had a coronavirus infection doesn't mean “you're destined to develop neurologic or psychiatric problems,” he points out.
That said, if you start to exhibit new or unusual symptoms that persist or reoccur after having COVID-19, “it might merit at least an inquiry with your personal physician to see if, in fact, there's something brewing.” Petersen notes the study also serves as a reminder for health care providers to keep COVID-19 “on their radar screen” as a possible contributing factor to serious neurological conditions, such as stroke.
Doctors brace for influx of patients with brain-related symptoms
With the total number of COVID-19 cases continuing to climb in the U.S., Sara Manning Peskin, a neurologist at Penn Medicine who works with people experiencing post-COVID-19 brain fog, predicts the health system will start to see an “influx” of patients noticing brain-related symptoms after COVID-19. To that, the study's authors write that health services “need to be configured, and resourced, to deal with this anticipated need."
Several hospitals and health systems have set up clinics to help treat people who experience lingering effects of COVID-19 — and some specifically treat neurological issues. “There's a big demand for the clinics because patients are having these experiences and nobody knows what to do,” Manning Peskin says.
The NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) has also launched a database to keep track all of the neurological symptoms and outcomes health care providers throughout the U.S. see in coronavirus patients.
To date, there is no specific intervention that prevents COVID-19-related brain issues. That is why NewYork-Presbyterian's Parikh says it's important to “remain vigilant” and to continue with proven mitigation efforts — wear a mask in public, keep a distance of at least 6 feet from others, wash your hands often, avoid crowds and poorly ventilated spaces, and get a vaccine when it's available to you.
As for next steps, experts agree that more research is needed to better understand COVID-19 and the brain — and especially any long-term complications that could arise from a coronavirus infection.
"I think [the study published in The Lancet Psychiatry] is really good proof that there's an association,” Manning Peskin says. “Everyone's just wondering what's actually causing it, and then the next step is treating it.”