GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- A study from researchers at Oxford University involving more than 200,000 COVID-19 patients found one in three were dealing with lingering neurological and psychiatric effects six months after infection.
"I think it is concerning because it's a unique situation we're in," said Dr. Chris Robinson, an assistant professor of neurology and neurosurgery in the University of Florida College of Medicine Division of Neurocritical care. "It's unprecedented and it's multifactorial. So, we have a pandemic with a virus that's novel, meaning we don't know what it is and it's never infected anyone before. Then we have societal standards that have changed because of the pandemic, such as being forced to, you know, stay in your home, being afraid of your own mortality."
In the study published by The Lancet, researchers looked at the incidence of 14 neurological and psychological conditions for patients six months after they were infected with COVID-19.
It found 33.62% were experiencing the conditions, with 12.84% receiving their first such diagnosis. That was higher for people who had to be hospitalized, with 46.42% experiencing a neurological condition and 25.79% receiving a first diagnosis. Some of the most frequently experienced conditions include anxiety disorder (17.39%), ischaemic stroke (2.10%), and psychotic disorder (1.40%).
Researchers found most of the diagnostic categories were more common in COVID patients than those with the flu or other respiratory illnesses, which Robinson said are known to cause similar impacts.
"The things that we're seeing are similar, but they are now gaining attention. So, I've seen plenty of cases of influenza with similar things, I've seen plenty of cases of other viruses, but it was something that we knew about and wasn't affecting billions of people," Robinson said.
Robinson said in addition to mental health possibly playing a role, these effects could also be the result of an immune response.
"There are a lot of studies now that have been done taking patients that have passed away and done pathologic studies on their brains," said Robinson. "There's little to no what we call viral RNA particles in the brain. What we do see is a lot of cellular changes that are resulting from systemic inflammation. The majority of your neurologic processes that you've seen in past viruses are a result of inflammation in which you get the virus, your body produces the immune cells to fight that virus off, and it goes away. Then, something triggers your immune system to say, 'You know what? I'm going to create a new antibody, and it's going to attack your nerves, or it's going to attack your cardiovascular system.'"
Emerging evidence does offer a glimmer of hope. A small British study involving 44 patients found some of those who got vaccinated saw a slight improvement in overall long haul symptoms.
"The problem is, right now they're anecdotal experiences saying...'Hey, I was dying of this, you know, brain fog or fatigue and then I got my vaccine, and I'm fine,'" said Robinson.
Robinson said more research is needed on that and to determine the reasons behind and best course of treatment for long COVID symptoms.