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The connection between chronic neurological conditions and infectious viruses has baffled scientists since a long time. The 1918 Spanish Flu brought with it a degenerative neurological syndrome called encephalitis lethargica. This condition led to muscle rigidity akin to Parkinson, psychosis and, a zombie-like state in some cases.
Cut to 103 years later, the Covid-19 pandemic is likely about to mirror the neurological side of things.
Beyond its immediate effects, it seems that the virus is likely to leave a lasting impact on the human system (also known as long Covid). If recent reports are anything to go by, the infection could potentially lead to a spike in dementia cases as well going forward.
As per the World Health Organization, there are about 50 million people globally with dementia and nearly 10 million new cases every year. This is likely to increase to 78 million by 2030 2 — a number that indicates a double-edged sword. If what the report says were to be true, we are staring at a potential dementia case overload in the years to come.
The frequency of seizures, psychosis, and memory-related problems in current Covid-19 patients is unknown. As per studies, a majority of people with severe infection develop mental confusion and rapid mood changes. This is even after recovery and means that there will be a substantial part of the population with lasting cognitive problems. The red flags that the virus may be affecting the brain first emerged when people starting losing smell and taste. By damaging and clotting the brain’s micro vessels, the virus can affect immunity and cause inflammation. This means an open pathway to things that can harm the brain and a likelihood of neurological disorders such as dementia manifesting earlier.
Dementia refers to a set of symptoms that affect cognitive functioning. Depending on the type and cause, it can affect a person’s memory, thinking and focus, problem solving abilities, language use, and visual perception. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, and currently there is no cure for the condition. There are some medications which can help alleviate the symptoms partially but do not stop the disease from progressing.
The brain shields itself from infectious diseases with the help of the “blood-brain barrier”. This is a lining of specialized cells inside the capillaries which run through the brain and spinal cord. The barrier blocks out microbes and other alien agents.
The Covid-19 virus not only seems to be able to evade this barrier but also get into the core of the central nervous system. It could actually remain there with the possibility of returning much later. There will thus be a need for long-term and systematic monitoring of people who are discharged after acquiring Covid-19 for any neurological damage as well.
Given how most Covid-19 cases occur between the 18–64 age group and dementia in the 65 years and older category, the need of the hour is more research around the linkage between the two conditions. This will also enable in better planning and resource allocation and ensure that better care is accorded to people in case they are susceptible. On an individual level, access to information around the linkage between these two conditions and an awareness of what is dementia and its symptoms will enable people to self-monitor or even look out for possible signs in those around them.