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Your Brain on Coronavirus

Understanding the Cognitive Effects of COVID-19

By Olivia L. DobbsPublished 14 days ago 4 min read
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Your Brain on Coronavirus
Photo by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash

Bear with me here, folks, I’m writing this amid the throws of COVID. I noticed an incredible decrease in my cognitive ability over the past few days. As the fevers hit I became rather easily confused, often disoriented, and less cognitively capable than usual. Now, at [what I’m hoping is] the tail end of this bout of illness, I became curious about what exactly happened to my brain over the last week, and if this sort of symptom is common amongst others who have experienced coronavirus. I investigated my brain on COVID while dealing with COVID-brain. Here’s what I found:

How Fevers Affect the Brain

Though helpful in eradicating illness, fevers don’t do your cognition any favors in the short term. It’s been documented that fevers from most illnesses cause at least short-term impairment to memory, attention, and processing of information. No matter which cold you have, a fever will likely make your thinking function a little odd in comparison to its usual ability. According to the American Psychological Association, the degree to which colds affect cognition is comparable to alcohol consumption and working prolonged hours. When suffering through a cold, you’re more likely to have slower reaction times and take longer to learn new information and complete tasks that require deep reasoning.

When you’re being invaded by some nasty microbe, your body reallocates its energy to put more focus on eradicating what’s ailing it. On an average day, your brain uses 20% of your metabolic energy to function so, when the body does augment its energy usage to fight illness, the effect on your mind will often feel more pronounced. In addition, your immune system is set up to release small proteins (called cytokines) which act as messengers to the rest of the body, informing your system that defense is necessary. Unfortunately, these little proteins have some adverse effects on mood and brain functioning as well.

Why Do Colds Impact Your Cognitive Abilities?

In the brain, some viruses do interfere with your neurotransmitters, slowing the transmission of the chemicals responsible for reaction times (noradrenaline), learning (choline), and memory (dopamine). The culprit for fevers isn’t usually the viruses, however, but your immune system responding to the virus invasion. When your body notices an invader, it will modify the environment so that the intruders have a worse time of surviving within you. Many viruses have high temperature sensitivity, so attacking them with heat can make them much easier to triumph over. Unfortunately for us, this raised temperature isn’t ideal for the functioning of our brain structures either but, unlike viruses and other nasty little illness microbes, our cells can survive in this state, even if they’re not necessarily able to perform in tip-top shape at 100+ degrees.

It’s important to note here that most of these effects are acute, and subside as the body fights off the illness it’s subject to. In order to receive long-term brain damage from fever, one would need to reach above 108 degrees Fahrenheit, which is exceedingly rare. But, as always, please consult a healthcare provider if you have any concerns about a high fever above 103 degrees that you or someone you know is experiencing. I am not a medical practitioner.

How Does COVID-19 Affect the Brain

Most of those affected by COVID-19 notice a combination of cognitive impairment, olfactory (smell) impairment, and general brain fatigue. Unlike many other illnesses that we’ve more traditionally been afflicted with seasonally, there are reports of patients developing an inability to focus, changes in behavior, and a vague set of “brain fog” symptoms which can last long after the other symptoms of Coronavirus subside. Currently, with COVID I can confirm, the brain fog of COVID is unique, feeling distinct from any other fevers I’ve had.

In addition to the general fever cognition effects of less severe illnesses, COVID-19 may potentially enter both the brain and spinal cord, but research is still needed to confirm to what extent this occurs and how common it is. Otherwise, many scientists believe that the sheer severity of the illness causes a pronounced set of symptoms, exacerbating the usual cold-induced confusion and cognitive impairment. Coronavirus works your immune system hard, so much so that there’s evidence of the disease causing lasting changes to white blood cell count after an infection. So, it makes sense that the brain-fog aspect might be more pronounced than in, say, a piddly common cold or a variant of the flu.

From the short-term effects of fevers on memory, attention, and information processing to the unique cognitive challenges posed by COVID-19, our understanding of the virus’s influence on the brain is evolving — and the results will likely take months to years from now to fully understand. While, anecdotally, it does seem that most cognitive effects are acute and subside as the body triumphs over illness, lingering Long COVID cognitive symptoms seen in many individuals necessitate ongoing research. It’s crucial that we continue to support scientific endeavors that aim to unravel the minutiae of the effects of COVID. With understanding comes healing.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m due for another round of medicine to treat this damned illness.

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Originally Published to Medium. Follow Me For New Posts Every Friday!

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About the Creator

Olivia L. Dobbs

Science Enthusiast, Naturalist, Dreamer.

Check out my science! -> bit.ly/DobbsEtAl

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