COVID-19 could cause a spike in dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases in the years ahead.
Considered primarily a respiratory disease during the pandemic's initial months, coronavirus can affect other organs such as the brain, Newsweek reported Wednesday.
Many COVID-19 long-haulers, patients with lingering symptoms despite no longer testing positive, have experienced Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – a mysterious condition that includes extreme fatigue, exercise intolerance, and other strange and debilitating neurological symptoms.
Newsweek said 10-30% of those infected by COVID-19 might eventually experience long-term symptoms, if long-haulers follow the trajectory of CFS sufferers.
"The realization that there's a neurological effect has been really recent," said Avindra Nath, clinical director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). "I've been trying to beat that drum for quite some time. Patients have been complaining about it for months, but the scientists were not doing anything about it."
One concerning characteristic of the virus is the ability to metastasize, according to Dr. Carlos Cordon-Cardo, director of the department of pathology at New York City's Mount Sinai Health System.
"The virus, even though it enters through the nose, can reach the lungs, the kidney, the liver, and now the brain because it goes into the blood vessels, it circulates, it travels into these tunnels," Cordon-Cardo said. "And then it can meet in a specific site to produce an extent of organ damage."
With Congress having allocated nearly $1.5 billion to the National Institutes of Health for COVID-19 research in December, people are asking how much of that money will be spent to analyze long-haulers and their cognitive symptoms. The decision falls to NIH director Francis Collins.
NIH officials told Newsweek, the agency likely will support large-scale studies that examine different recovery trajectories.
"[NIH will] expand efforts to determine the scope of the post-acute COVID-19 symptoms, understand the biological processes involved and, ultimately, test methods to prevent and treat such symptoms," an NIH spokesperson said.
In the meantime, neuroscientists focus on ways of intervening early after the onset of COVID-19 with treatments that minimize long-term brain damage. Treatment becomes more difficult for patients who have lived for months or years with CFS.
"That's what we'd like to avoid," said Dr. Walter Koroshetz, director of NINDS. "The sooner you can intervene, the greater effect your intervention is likely to have. People who are 2 and 3 years out and are still sick, it's a tougher road."
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