Scientists see hope in new therapy for COVID Brain Fog patients

Feb. 10, 2022 – People with prolonged COVID “brain fog” may be able to restore mental faculties dulled or stolen by the virus through an approach that has ameliorated the effects of stroke, traumatic brain injury and other post-viral conditions, doctors and scientists say.

For a fortunate portion of the population, COVID-19 lasts for a handful of days with mild symptoms. But for an estimated 37% who contract the virus, symptoms can last for weeks, months, or even years. One of the most common symptoms of long-term COVID is brain fog: a life-altering condition characterized by slow thinking, confusion, difficulty remembering and poor concentration.

Some sort 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 neural networks in the brain to change, adapt and strengthen, much like a muscle in the body that has been trained and trained.

“The ability of the brain to recover from injury is what neuroplasticity is, and I’ve worked with people in our rehab clinic who’ve had brain tumors or who have had the effects of surgery or radiation on the brain, and people who have had western cancers. Nile, HIV, and meningitis,” said Tom Bergquist, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. “Not a week goes by that I don’t see anyone 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 errors. The repetition helps rebuild those memory skills that were weakened during the 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 had long-term cognitive problems after an infection with Lyme disease. After treatment Lyme syndrome, or chronic Lyme disease, affects about 1 in 10 people who are infected.

Ahrens says he was struck with Lyme 10 years ago and that he had brain fog, joint pain and brain lesions that were detectable on scans several years after infection.

According to Ahrens, neuroplasticity-based therapies help combat what researchers have found, possibly a persistent memory of past infections that lead to an increased immune response, causing lingering symptoms.

“Essentially, what we believe is happening here is that the brain has learned that these symptoms are life-threatening — because, in fact, they can be,” Ahrens says. “The brain’s only job is to protect the body, and once it has learned 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 compulsion-induced therapy — an approach rooted in neuroplasticity and traditionally used for loss of limb and speech function — is also effective for cognitive impairments such as brain fog.

One technique they use is called shaping, in which a person has to repeatedly perform their personal best function of reduced use — remembering household chores they previously forgot about, for example. This happens several times over several weeks in the clinic, and patients are taught ways to transfer those skills into real life.

So far, the results are promising, says researcher and psychology professor Edward Taub, PhD.

When used in the past for physical disabilities, researchers have noted not only clinical improvements, but also structural changes. It led to an increase in the brain’s gray matter — which allows individuals to control movement, memory and emotions — and improved white matter, which promotes communication between gray matter areas.

Although the results of the cognitive studies have not been published, Taub says that patients with brain fog have shown improvement after just 35 hours of therapy and have improved almost 100% after 6 months.

“The idea behind this is that the brain responds to use,” Taub said. “The amount of brain area devoted to supporting or mediating a particular behavioral function depends on the demands placed on the brain.”

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