Study also indicates a correlation between anxiety and long COVID
Patients hospitalized with COVID-19 frequently experience altered brain function, and those with mild COVID-19 who never required hospitalization often develop neurologic symptoms as part of long COVID. A new Northwestern Medicine study published in Neurology® Neuroimmunology & Neuroinflammation sought to find evidence of central nervous system injury in both groups of patients by looking at biomarkers of inflammation in the brain, and damage to nerve cells which are present in the blood, to help determine whether these tests might inform how best to identify and treat patients.
“These markers have been looked at in other COVID populations, but our study population was unique because we have matched cognitive and quality of life measures in addition to the typically studied COVID symptoms like shortness of breath, fatigue and brain fog,” said Igor J. Koralnik, MD, chief of Neuro-infectious Diseases and Global Neurology, who also oversees the Neuro COVID-19 Clinic at Northwestern Medicine. “The most noteworthy finding is that we were able to look at a marker of nerve cell damage and a marker of activation of supporting cells in the brain called ‘glial cells’ which are elevated in other diseases of the brain such as multiple sclerosis.”
The study enrolled 64 participants, which included hospitalized COVID-19 patients at Northwestern Memorial Hospital with acute brain dysfunction known as encephalopathy, non-hospitalized COVID long-haulers treated at the Neuro COVID-19 Clinic, and healthy control subjects from the community.
The study’s biggest findings include:
Researchers used a Neuro-Glial score which combines evidence of nerve cell damage as well as brain inflammation which correlated with the neuropsychiatric symptom of anxiety in the patient population.
“The correlation we observed between anxiety and Neuro-Glial score held up when we controlled for age, sex, and BMI, and was observed in both qualitative and quantitative measures of anxiety, which suggests there is a true relationship,” said Barbara Hanson, PhD, who co-authored the study and analyzed all the data in the Northwestern Medicine Neuro COVID-19 research lab. “We hope the observed correlation leads to future research into the mechanistic basis of these neuropsychiatric symptoms in long COVID patients, or perhaps in the biological basis of chronic anxiety in general.”
Since May 2020, the Neuro COVID-19 Clinic, which is part of the Comprehensive COVID-19 Center at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, has seen more than 1,100 patients from around the country with long-hauler symptoms.
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Igor Koralnik, MD is the Chief of Neuro-infectious Disease and Global Neurology in the Department of Neurology.
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