February 10, 2022: people with prolonged COVID”brain “mist” can recover the mental abilities that the virus took or stole from them through an approach that has enhanced the effects of racetraumatic brain injury and other post-viral disorders, doctors and scientists say.
For a lucky portion of the population, COVID-19 lasts a few days with minor symptoms. but for a estimated 37% who contract the virus, symptoms can persist for weeks, months, or even years. One of the most common symptoms from long covid it’s brain fog: a life-altering condition characterized by slow thinking, confusion, difficulty remembering things, and lack of concentration.
A type of rehabilitation program that allows the brain to rewire itself has been successful in improving the lives of people with brain fog. The approaches are based on the concept of neuroplasticity: the ability of the brain’s neural networks to change, adapt and grow stronger, 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 suffer from the effects of surgery or radiation to the brain, and people who have had west nileHIV and meningitissays Tom Bergquist, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. “Not a week goes by that I don’t see someone recovering 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 the infection, says Bergquist.
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 had long-term cognitive problems after a Lyme’s desease infection. Post-treatment Lyme disease syndromeor chronic lyme diseaseit occurs in about 1 in 10 infected people.
Ahrens says he was struck with Lyme 10 years ago and had mental confusion, joint pain and brain injuries detectable on scans for several years after infection.
According to Ahrens, therapies based on neuroplasticity help combat what researchers have found it may be a lingering memory of past infections leading to a heightened immune response, causing persistent symptoms.
“Essentially, what we think is happening here is that the brain has learned that these symptoms are life-threatening, because, in fact, they can be,” says Ahrens. “The brain’s only job is to protect the body, and once it learns to associate these symptoms with that potentially very dangerous pathogen, even after it’s gone, things like a normal headache can trigger an immune cascade.”
Studies are underway at the University of Alabama at Birmingham to examine whether restraint-induced therapy, an approach rooted in neuroplasticity and historically used for loss of limb and speech function, is also effective for cognitive deficits such as mental confusion.
One technique they use is called shaping, which requires a person to repeatedly perform their impaired-use personal best function, for example, remembering household chores that they have previously forgotten. That’s done multiple times over several weeks at the clinic, and patients are given ways to transfer those skills to real-life use.
So far, the results are promising, says researcher and psychology professor Edward Taub, PhD.
When used in the past for physical impairments, researchers noted not only clinical improvements, but also structural changes. led to a increased gray matter in the brain — which allows people to control movement, memory and emotions — and improves white matter, which helps communication between gray matter areas.
Although the results of cognitive studies have not been published, Taub says that patients with brain fog have shown improvement after just 35 hours of therapy and are nearly 100% better after 6 months.
“The idea behind this is that the brain responds to use,” Taub said. “The amount of brain territory that is dedicated to supporting or mediating a given behavioral function depends on the demands placed on the brain.”