Loss of taste and smell from COVID-19 has researchers looking at other impacts on the brain

LONDON, ONT. -- Researchers have been observing the potential long-term impacts COVID-19 can have on a person's health.

After observing how people often lose their sense of taste and smell once infected, researchers and clinicians at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry are now preparing to study what other effects COVID-19 might have on the brain.

“We tend to think about the lung, and there are lots of studies going on to look at the effects of the lung, but what we are learning is that this virus can affect many organs in the body,” said Dr. Robert Bartha, acting director of Strategy and Scientific Integration at the Robarts Research Institute.

With the help of a grant from Western University’s Research Catalyst Grant: Surviving Pandemics program, the team is hoping to recruit 60 patients who have experienced neurological symptoms from COVID-19.

‘These are things like simple headaches, seizures, loss of conscious, loss of taste and smell…The first step in what we are doing is to try and relate the symptoms to something we can actually see in the brain.”

The researchers will do cognitive testing to observe changes in functioning after the illness and also run patients through an MRI scan.

“There are reports of people having these things called micro-bleeds, which are very tiny bleeds in the brain, (an MRI) gives us a real advantage in trying to find these things and relating them back to cognitive changes.”

The team will be using a 7-Tesla MRI, which can pick up higher resolution images.

Dr. Megan Devlin, an infectious diseases assistant professor at Schulich, said the brain imaging and cognitive tests will help document current symptoms that patients face.

“Including memory loss or confusion, severe headaches and loss of the sense of smell. In rare, severe cases, hospitalized patients develop stroke…The focus of this study is to better understand how COVID-19 has impacted the brain, through cognitive tests and also physical symptoms. This is our way of studying that because we recognize these symptoms many months after COVID.”

The hope is to determine exactly what is happening in the brains of COVID-19 patients and gain insight into what the long-term effects might be.

“One of the really interesting questions that we are hoping to answer is the effect of COVID-19 on developing other diseases later life," Bartha wrote in a release.

"Any time you have a condition that causes insult to the brain, it brings in the question about whether this might accelerate the processes that leads to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s or dementia.”