Many COVID-19 long-haulers still have neurological symptoms such as headaches, fatigue and memory problems six months later, new research shows.
The findings are the first from an ongoing study of long-haulers by researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine. Long-haulers are people who continue to have symptoms long after their initial COVID-19 infection is gone.
"It's encouraging that most people were showing some improvement at six months, but that wasn't the case for everyone," said senior study author Dr. Jennifer Graves, an associate professor of medicine and a neurologist at UC San Diego Health.
"Some of these participants are high-level professionals who we'd expect to score above average on cognitive assessments, but months after having COVID-19, they're still scoring abnormally," Graves added in a university news release.
The study included 56 people who developed neurological symptoms after mild-to-moderate COVID-19 infection. They entered the study between October 2020 and October 2021.
The participants were assessed a few months after their infection, and again three and six months later. At the first assessment, 89% had fatigue and 80% had headaches. Other common symptoms included memory impairment, insomnia and reduced concentration.
Eight in 10 said their neurological symptoms affected their quality of life.
At six months, only one-third of participants said they no longer had any neurological symptoms. In the rest, most symptoms were less severe, and the most common symptoms were memory impairment and reduced concentration.
None of the participants with symptoms at six months had any history of neurological conditions before getting COVID, according to the authors of the study published online June 15 in the Annals of Clinical and Translational Neurology.
Neurological symptoms in long-haulers likely arise because COVID-19 triggers an inflammatory autoimmune response in the brain, according to Graves.
The researchers plan to reassess participants' symptoms annually for up to 10 years, and also to examine how different variants and vaccines affect long-term symptoms.
Graves' team also found that 7% of participants had a previously unidentified set of symptoms that included thinking problems, tremor and difficulty balancing.
"These are folks who had no neurological problems before COVID-19, and now they have an incoordination of their body and possible incoordination of their thoughts," Graves said. "We didn't expect to find this, so we want to get the word out in case other physicians see this too."
There's more on long COVID conditions at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
SOURCE: University of California, San Diego, news release, June 15, 2022