Understanding the impact of COVID-19 on brain health

Monday, August 23, 2021

A research team led by Dr. Teresa Liu-Ambrose, a professor of physical therapy at the University of British Columbia (UBC), is investigating the impact of COVID-19 on cognitive function, brain structure and brain function in adults aged 55 to 80 years who participate in the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging (CLSA).

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been consistent evidence that COVID-19 impacts the brain – ranging from infection to stroke to delirium,” said Liu-Ambrose, the UBC site investigator for the CLSA, a researcher at the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute and director of the UBC Aging, Mobility and Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory.

The virus that causes COVID-19 belongs to a family of viruses that possess the capacity to directly impact the brain. Since the onset of the pandemic, COVID-19 patients have presented with a wide variety of neurological signs and symptoms, including stroke, confusion, and the loss of smell. These observations support the notion that COVID-19 can have significant consequences on cognitive function and brain health, including increased dementia risk.

“Our overarching goal is to better understand how COVID-19 affects our cognition and the brain, both immediately and in the longer term,” said Liu-Ambrose. “By advancing our understanding of the more subtle impacts of COVID-19 on the brain and cognition, we can implement early screening and interventions, which will ultimately improve outcomes for Canadians.”

The CLSA is the largest and longest study on adult development and aging in Canada, with more than 51,000 participants recruited at baseline. The COVID-19 Brain Health Study is a sub-study of the CLSA, inviting eligible participants to take part by undergoing repeated cognitive testing and brain scanning at one of eight sites across the country.

Researchers will compare the cognitive function, brain structure and brain function of adults with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 with those who are symptom-free or who have tested negative for COVID-19.

By using the CLSA as the foundation of study, researchers will be able to link cognitive data and neuroimaging data acquired during the pandemic to pre-pandemic and post-pandemic data and biomarkers collected as part of the CLSA.

“Drawing participants from the CLSA allows the unique opportunity to link the neuroimaging data with an existing national database of biological samples and measures of physical, physiological and cognitive function, and of psychological, social and economic well-being collected since 2012,” Liu-Ambrose said.

The CLSA COVID-19 Brain Health Study is funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Weston Foundation.