International dementia experts have formed a consortium to study the link between covid-19 and dementia, amid growing evidence the virus could increase the risk of dementia and accelerate progression of the disease.

Dr Alireza Atri

Research is coming to light that suggests the neurological impact of covid-19 can increase the risk of cognitive decline in later life, prompting the formation of the group representing 30 countries earlier this year.

Chairman of Alzeheimer’s Disease International’s Medical and Scientific Advisory Panel (MSAP) and Director of the Banner Sun Health Research Institute in the US, Dr Alireza Atri, says he’s seen clear links between ‘long-covid’ and dementia in his own clinic and research.

A ‘Trojan horse’

He fears covid could be a  ‘Trojan horse’ for dementia.

“Covid-19 can cause damage and clotting in the brain’s micro vessels, immune dysfunction and hyperactivation, inflammation, and, last but not least, direct viral brain invasion through the olfactory pathways,” Dr Atri says.

“With the blood-brain barrier damaged, our brain’s fortress is breached.

 “Simply put, if you have a fortress and an enemy puts holes in your walls, you’re less likely to be able to withstand current and future attacks.

“COVID-19 opens the gates in the same way that the Greek soldiers hiding in the wooden horse did. It gives easier access to things that can harm your brain.”

Dr Atri says experts are particularly concerned about the neurological symptoms of ‘long-covid-19’ including cognitive problems like ‘brain fog’ and difficulties with concentration, memory, thinking and language.

Growing evidence

Research in the area is limited and inconclusive but studies presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in July suggest it’s growing.

A US study found a correlation between biomarkers of Alzheimer’s disease and covid-related neurological symptoms, the conference heard, while Argentinian research found problems with memory, language and executive function up to six months after infection with covid in a group of people over 60.

Meanwhile, data from the Great British Intelligence –  a large scale population survey of cognition, wellbeing and behaviour – showed that many people who had recovered from COVID-19 experienced significant cognitive impacts.

“These new data point to disturbing trends showing covid-19 infections leading to lasting cognitive impairment and even Alzheimer’s symptoms,” Alzheimer’s Association vice president of medical and scientific relations Heather Snyder warned last month.

Fear of dementia spike

Dr Atri predicts a short-term drop in dementia numbers because of the high rate of covid deaths – up to 45 per cent – being people with dementia.

But he’s worried that further down the track to neurological impact of Covid-19 could see a dementia spike.

Paola Barbarino

ADI CEO, Paola Barbarino, says that most governments around the world aren’t prepared for this.

“Many dementia experts around the globe are seriously concerned by the link between dementia and the neurological symptoms of covid-19,” says Barbarino.

“Our MSAP working group will liaise with other international working groups … to share learnings, ongoing research, and best practice as understanding about the longer-term impact of covid-19 evolves.”

Ms Barbarino says people who are at risk of developing dementia also need to know about the potential impact of long-covid on their brain health.

 “We need people to be aware of the possible link between long-covid and dementia, so they know to self-monitor for symptoms and catch it in its tracks. Measures must be put in place to protect them,” she said.

The consortium will link study teams from around the world and enroll recovered covid cases for follow up at six, nine and 18 months.

It’s not the first time a link has been found between novel infectious diseases and progressive neurological disorders, with Spanish flu survivors facing a three fold increased risk of Parkinson’s Disease.

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