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Covid may cause brain to degenerate three times faster than normal, Oxford study suggests

Dr Max Taquet says the findings might “help to explain why some people experience brain symptoms long after the acute infection”

A Covid-19 infection may contract the brain, degenerating it three times faster than normal for middle-aged people, a new study reveals.

The University of Oxford chose 401 people who tested positive for Covid-19 and examined their brain scans before and after the infection.

They found brain volume, in olfactory-related regions, had dropped by an average of 0.7 percent compared to a matched control group who did not have the infection.

Normally, just 0.2 percent volume is lost in that region in a year by a middle-aged person.

This implies the decline took place faster in people who were infected with Covid.

a testing solution dripping into a Covid 19 lateral flow testing strip

a testing solution dripping into a Covid 19 lateral flow testing strip

Writing in the journal Nature, the authors said: “Our longitudinal analyses revealed a significant, deleterious impact associated with Covid-19.

“Significantly greater cognitive decline, which persisted even after excluding the hospitalised patients, was seen in the Covid-19 positive group between the two timepoints.

“Whether this deleterious impact can be partially reversed, or whether these effects will persist in the long term, remains to be investigated with additional follow-up.”

The experts says they are not yet aware of any link between the virus and brain loss, as they cannot prove a causal effect from the purely observational study.

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Dr Max Taquet, of the University of Oxford, said: “It is well-established that Covid-19 infection is associated with subsequent risks of neurological and psychiatric problems in some people, including brain fog, loss of taste and smell, depression and psychosis.

“But why this occurs remains largely unknown. This study starts to shed light on this important question by showing that brain regions connected to the ‘smell centre’ of the brain can shrink after Covid-19 in some people.

“These findings might help to explain why some people experience brain symptoms long after the acute infection. The causes of these brain changes, whether they can be prevented or even reverted, as well as whether similar changes are observed in hospitalised patients, in children and younger adults, and in minority ethnic groups, remain to be determined.”

Research fellow in neuroimaging at the University of Nottingham, Dr Rebecca Dewey, said: “If the findings were based on imaging data alone, I would say that we have much less reason to worry about this as the brain is so plastic that it is likely to compensate in the absence of any conditions preventing this.

“However, I find the significant association between the imaging findings and the cognitive tests highly compelling. The authors took great effort to show that this effect was not present prior to Covid.

“These sorts of changes are seen after many forms of disease onslaught, and even that of healthy ageing. The key difference shown here is that they appear to be happening faster than with ageing alone.”

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