One of the most common issues people experience when dealing with long COVID is a lingering brain fog that can make daily activities more challenging to carry out.
Nearly 40% of those who recover from a COVID-19 infection suffer from the debilitating syndrome, and while it's not life-threatening, there is currently no cure or exact treatment. However, experts say that there are some ways to help reduce the severity of symptoms.
What is brain fog?
Some people with long COVID struggle for weeks or even months with cognitive difficulties, including short-term memory loss and concentration issues.
While brain fog isn't a medical term, it is often used to describe fuzzy thinking or a lack of mental clarity. People who report having it say they experience confusion, memory loss, and difficulties focusing and recalling words. They are also often easily distracted.
In severe cases, it can affect a person's ability to do their job and complete simple daily tasks.
What is known so far
COVID brain fog is one of the most common symptoms of long COVID. In a survey published in the July 2021 issue of The Lancet's EClinical Medicine, 85% of the 3,762 participants with COVID-19 expierenced brain fog.
As more data is available on patients with cognitive symptoms, investigators are beginning to put together a picture of what might be causing them.
One new study conducted by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, found that people with post-recovery brain fog have abnormalities in their spinal fluid surrounding the brain, referred to as cerebrospinal fluid.
These abnormalities were present in study participants of all ages and of varying degrees of infection severity. The participants were all unvaccinated before they developed the cognitive impairment. Individuals with more health risk factors were more likely to experience COVID brain fog than those who had fewer.
Serena Spudich, a professor of neurology at the Yale University School of Medicine who has treated patients at Yale’s neuroCOVID-19 clinic, told Everyday Health that inflammation caused by an overactive immune response may be to blame. The same mechanism is thought to be behind other COVID symptoms, including breathing difficulties.
Although more research is needed to confirm the exact mechanism behind COVID brain fog, Spudich says some studies have shown the presence of autoantibodies – which are created when the immune system attacks itself – in the cerebrospinal fluid of COVID-19 patients with neurological symptoms.
Other researchers have been comparing COVID brain fog to conditions that cause similar cognitive difficulties. So far, they have found comparable changes in specialized cells that serve as the brain's surveillance and defense system in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, as well as those with Alzheimer's disease.
The same part of the brain, called the microglia, is also affected in other post-viral syndromes following an infection with influenza, Epstein-Barr, HIV and Ebola, according to The Washington Post.
Stanford University neuroscientist Michelle Monje says that studying these other conditions may lead to potential treatments for people suffering from severe COVID brain fog.
Strategies for improving symptoms
Patients with COVID brain fog may be referred to cognitive rehabilitation, which is like physical therapy for the brain. It focuses on giving patients strategies to improve the specific cognitive issues they are having.
For example, a therapist may help a patient with memory issues build a memory support system that includes a calendar for recording important appointments and activities.
For patients who are easily distracted and struggle with concentration, a therapist may recommend developing ways to mark where they are in a current task before moving on to another, so that it's easier to return to the initial activity.
Cognitive rehabilitation is also used to help patients recover from traumatic brain injuries, strokes and concussions.
Harvard Health recommends other activities that have been proven to help strengthen cognitive function. These include:
・Aerobic exercise. Start slow if you need to, but try to build up to 30 minutes a day, five days a week.
・Follow a Mediterranean-style diet which includes olive oil, fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans and whole grains.
・Don't drink alcohol or take drugs in order to give your brain a chance to heal.
・Make sure you are getting enough sleep which helps the brain and body clear out toxins.
・Spend time with family and friends. Social activities can also improve thinking and memory
・Engage in other activities that stimulate the brain such as reading, listening to music and practicing mindfulness.