One in eight COVID-19 survivors have received a diagnosis of a neurological or psychiatric condition in the year following infection, says a study from Oxford University. The study has been published on the pre-print server MedRxiv.
The study tracked 236,379 COVID survivors in the U.S. and found that these individuals (particularly those hospitalized) were more at risk of receiving a neurological or psychiatric diagnosis within six months. Around a third of the survivors received a diagnosis for a condition such as depression, dementia, or stroke, and for 13 percent, this was the first diagnosis.
Is it the coronavirus or the COVID interventions that are causing this uptick in mental health diagnoses? For now, this remains to be unseen, but cause and effect under such complicated situations are not easy to nail down. The researchers factored in age, sex, race, underlying medical conditions, and socioeconomic status, but none of these proved to show clear associations with the swell in neurological disorders.
For now, the researchers continue to map the dynamics of this phenomenon in the months following COVID diagnoses.
"For diagnoses like a stroke or an intracranial bleed, the risk does tend to decrease quite dramatically within six months," said Oxford researcher Max Taquet. "But for a few neurological and psychiatric diagnoses, we don't have the answer about when it's going to stop."
COVID-19 likely impacts the brain either directly or through diminished availability of oxygen reaching the nervous system. This may explain some of the neurological consequences of infection, ranging from “brain fog” and dizziness to hallucinations, delirium, and memory lapses.
Some experts fear the worse: A large-scale epidemic of debilitating and sometimes permanent neurological conditions looming.
"My worry is that we have millions of people with COVID-19 now. And if in a year's time we have 10 million recovered people, and those people have cognitive deficits … then that's going to affect their ability to work and their ability to go about activities of daily living," said neuroscientist Adrian Owen.