SAN FRANCISCO, CA — Scientists say COVID-19 long-haulers experiencing continued brain fog after an infection have changes in their spinal fluid, even after a mild case of the virus.
Brain fog is one of the most common complaints in COVID-19 long-haulers. A new study from scientists at UC San Francisco found many people with COVID-19-related cognitive issues have changes in the colorless fluid surrounding their brain, even months after their infection.
"We want to identify what the mechanism is — what is the problem — so we can develop solutions or treatments for people with these issues," Dr. Joanna Hellmuth, the lead study author, said.
Dr. Hellmuth and her colleagues did spinal taps on 17 volunteers who recovered from mild COVID-19. In people with brain fog, she said 77 percent had signs of inflammation or other abnormalities in their spinal fluid. The question they still can't answer is why this is happening.
"The data that we see now is suggesting that maybe this is kind of a misdirected immune system," Dr. Hellmuth said.
She said the study offers some clues into who is getting brain fog. They tended to have two or more risk factors, like diabetes, high blood pressure or heavy alcohol use — all conditions that can harm blood vessels in the brain. Other risk factors were anxiety, depression, and a history of learning disabilities or ADHD.
"There's a lot of benefits to ADHD, but one of the issues is that their executive functioning parts of the brain — the organizing and planning parts of the brain — maybe have some more vulnerabilities. Those are the same networks in the brain that we see impacted by these COVID-related cognitive changes," Dr. Hellmuth said.
Research shows 20-30 percent of people develop brain fog after a COVID-19 infection. Dr. Hellmuth said she's optimistic COVID-19 brain fog is curable.