Feb. 10, 2022 — People with long COVID “brain fog” may be able to restore mental abilities that have been deadened or stolen from them by the virus, through an approach that has improved the effects of stroke, traumatic brain injury, and other postviral disorders, say doctors and scientists.
For a lucky segment of the population, COVID-19 lasts a handful of days with minor symptoms. But for one estimated 37% For those who contract the virus, symptoms can last weeks, months, or even years. One of most common symptoms COVID is Brain Fog: a life-altering condition characterized by slow thinking, confusion, difficulty remembering things, and poor concentration.
A type of rehabilitation program that allows the brain to rewire itself has successfully improved the lives of people with brain fog. The approaches are based on the concept of neuroplasticity: the ability of neural networks in the brain to change, adapt and strengthen, much like a muscle in the body that has been trained and exercised.
“The brain’s ability to recover from injury is what neuroplasticity is and I have worked with people in our rehab clinic who have had brain tumors or suffered the effects of surgery or radiation to the brain and with people who had West Nile infection. HIV and meningitis,” says Tom Bergquist, PhD, clinical neuropsychologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. “Not a week goes by that I don’t see someone recover from COVID-19.”
One of the approaches used in the clinic is error-free learning, or having a patient with memory problems repeat information a certain number of times without error. Repetition helps rebuild those memory skills that were weakened during infection, Bergquist says.
People who have experienced brain fog after other viral infections have seen improvements with these approaches. Ben Ahrens, co-founder and CEO of Re-Origin — a company that offers neuroplasticity therapy — says he’s had long-term cognitive problems after contracting Lyme disease. After treatment, Lyme disease syndrome, or chronic Lyme disease, occurs in about 1 in 10 people who are infected.
Ahrens says he contracted Lyme 10 years ago and had brain fog, joint pain and brain lesions for several years after the infection, which were detectable on scans.
According to Ahrens, therapies based on neuroplasticity help combat what Researchers have found can be a lasting reminder of past infections leading to an increased immune response and causing persistent symptoms.
“Essentially, we think what’s happening here is that the brain has learned these symptoms are life-threatening — because they actually can be,” says Ahrens. “The brain’s sole job is to protect the body, and once it learns to associate these symptoms with this potentially very dangerous pathogen, things like a normal headache can trigger an immune cascade even after it’s gone.”
Studies are underway at the University of Alabama at Birmingham to see if compulsive therapy — an approach based on neuroplasticity and historically used for loss of limb and language function — is also effective for cognitive impairments like brain fog.
One technique they use is called shaping, which requires a person to repeatedly perform their personal best limited-use function — like remembering household chores they previously forgot. This is done multiple times over several weeks in the clinic, and patients are given opportunities to transfer these skills to real-life applications.
So far, the results are promising, says researcher and psychology professor Edward Taub, PhD.
When used historically for physical impairments, researchers have noted not only clinical improvements but also structural changes. It led to one Increase in gray matter in the brain — which allows individuals to control movement, memory and emotions — and enhanced white matter, which aids in communication between areas of the gray matter.
Although the results of the cognitive studies have not been published, Taub says patients with brain fog have shown improvement after just 35 hours of therapy and are almost 100% better at 6 months.
“The idea behind this is that the brain reacts to usage,” Taub said. “The amount of brain territory devoted to supporting or mediating a particular behavioral function depends on the demands placed on the brain.”