Mild COVID-19 can cause attention, memory issues for up to 9 months: study

Click to play video: 'COVID-19 Long Haulers: The growing toll of the pandemic'
COVID-19 Long Haulers: The growing toll of the pandemic
Almost two years into the pandemic, there are a growing number of people who were sick and are not getting better. They are known as COVID-19 long haulers, people living with unexplained symptoms including pain, exhaustion and debilitating brain fog. As Robin Gill found out for The New Reality, experts are trying to unravel the mystery of why people are still sick and who appears to be at more risk – Dec 11, 2021

People with mild COVID-19 who do not suffer any other traditional “long COVID” symptoms can still exhibit deteriorated attention and memory six to nine months after infection, a study by Britain’s Oxford University has found.

Cognitive issues impacting concentration levels, along with forgetfulness and fatigue, are features of long COVID – a condition that afflicts some after an initial bout of infection – but it has not been established how widespread issues with attention span might be following COVID-19 infection.

In the study, participants who had tested positive for COVID-19 previously but did not report other traditional long COVID symptoms were asked to complete exercises to test their memory and cognitive ability.

The researchers found that participants were significantly worse at recalling personal experiences, known as episodic memory, up to six months after infection.

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They also had a bigger decline in their ability to sustain attention over time than uninfected individuals up to nine months after infection.

“What is surprising is that although our COVID-19 survivors did not feel any more symptomatic at the time of testing, they showed degraded attention and memory,” said Dr Sijia Zhao of the Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford.

“Our findings reveal that people can experience some chronic cognitive consequences for months.”

The researchers said that individuals over time demonstrated episodic memory and attention span largely returned to normal after six and nine months, respectively.

Click to play video: 'COVID-19 Long Haulers: The growing toll of the pandemic'
COVID-19 Long Haulers: The growing toll of the pandemic

Participants also performed well in tests of other cognitive abilities, including working memory and planning, in the analysis of 136 participants.

Stephen Burgess of the MRC Biostatistics Unit at the University of Cambridge highlighted the small number of people involved in the study, adding that it was not randomised.

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“However, despite this, differences between the COVID and non-COVID groups in terms of several specific measures of cognitive ability looked at in this study were striking,” he said.

“Despite the limitations of non-randomised research, it seems unlikely that these results can be explained by systematic differences between the groups unrelated to COVID infection.”

(Reporting by Alistair Smout; Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

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