As is true for so many of us, what researcher Julius Fridriksson thought he’d be doing in 2020 didn’t exactly happen. He started the year as principal investigator on a large study investigating effects of aging on the brain and possibilities for predicting early cognitive decline. Three months into the study, after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he and his team at the University of South Carolina (USC) Aphasia Lab had to stop the research.
But then it came to light that “recovered” COVID patients were experiencing residual effects, including physical, mental health, cognitive, and neurological problems. So Fridriksson, director of the USC Aphasia Lab, and his team transformed their previous study into a new one delving into the origins of the cognitive and neurological issues. Working with the Palmetto Health-USC Medical Group Division of Infectious Diseases, they broadened the study population to include people of any age who have had a verified COVID-19 diagnosis. Participants self-select into the study, and their ages range from 20 to 77. The researchers plan to enroll even older participants.
Once the team has completed enrollment and testing of 100 participants, the plan is to do preliminary analyses to understand the relationship between neurological symptoms and brain anomalies. All participants undergo neurological and cognitive testing, including assessments of memory, attention, and language, and MRI scans looking for structural and functional changes in the brain.
It’s too early for results, but, anecdotally, participants report symptoms such as unrelenting fatigue, vertigo, and brain fog—problems with memory, word-finding, and concentrating on everyday tasks. One person, a bank manager, could no longer read an Excel spreadsheet, a higher-order cognitive task she could perform easily pre-COVID. Now she has to fake it.