The Cognitive Impacts of COVID-19

By: Shayna Herszage  |  May 26, 2021

By Shayna Herszage, Managing Editor

COVID-19 is generally classified as a respiratory virus. However, research and evidence have indicated that its impact does not stop there. In addition to the impact of the virus on the respiratory system, COVID-19 also has the potential to cause cognitive difficulties and memory impairment.

Ritchie, Chan, and Watermeyer (2020) conducted thorough research into the topic of COVID-19’s impact on cognitive functions and memory. Autopsies have shown that the virus enters the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), giving it easy and fast-acting access into the brain. When the virus has entered the brain, it is able to infiltrate different parts of the brain and the central nervous system (CNS) as a whole. In particular, the virus has had strong effects on the frontal cortex, which is the center of higher-level activities such as planning, and the hippocampus, which is the center of short-term memory. As a result, higher-level cognitive functions and the process of encoding short-term memories into long-term memories are at risk for permanent damage.

Additionally, the fact that COVID-19 is a respiratory virus has an impact on the brain due to the lack of oxygen it causes. Many people who have had COVID-19, especially those who needed ventilators, have reported experiencing long-term symptoms such as a short attention span, difficulty with long-term memory, executive dysfunction, and a slow processing speed. These symptoms arise because of the prolonged occurrence of hypoxia, which is a lack of oxygen in the blood. When a person is in a state of hypoxia, every moment that passes may lead to further damage. In this state, the brain does not get enough oxygen, leading to cell death, cerebral atrophy, and enlarged ventricles — all of which contribute to impaired cognitive functioning.

The psychological trauma of suffering from COVID-19 also has the potential to cause long-term cognitive deficits. The fear and uncertainty a person may experience while combating a novel virus such as COVID-19 may have large impacts on the brain. This psychological distress can lead to cognitive symptoms characteristic of trauma in general, such as paranoia and memory loss. The triggers for cognitive detriments due to COVID-19 may be physiological, but they also may be psychological.

The effects of COVID-19 have been shown to extend well beyond a cough and fever. Due to the virus’s ability to permeate the blood-brain barrier, the dangers of hypoxia, and the impacts of medical trauma, COVID-19 may have long-term, even permanent effects on memory and cognition. As vaccines become more widely and readily available, we, as a society, must understand that we are combating much more than a short-term illness. We are combating the long-term effects, deficits, and consequences COVID-19 has the potential to bring to ourselves, the people around us, and our global community as a whole.