TYSONS, Va. (WDVM) — A Northern Virginia neurologist says his research has revealed that COVID-19’s effect on the nervous system can cause brain damage and patients’ long term symptoms should be studied more closely.

If COVID-19 survivors are hospitalized and are experiencing side effects like dizziness, stroke, paralysis, memory difficulties, difficulty speaking, difficulty walking, or weakness, Dr. Majid Fotuhi wants patients to undergo a brain MRI before leaving the hospital. He estimates about a third of patients that he’s studied have had a range of neurological side effects, but very few have had an MRI. 

“Doctors are worried about respiratory issues and people staying alive and so if they have neurological issues they sort of deal with them as secondary problems,” Fotuhi said.

Fotuhi found COVID causes brain damage in three stages: first, patients have difficulty with only smell and taste (more than 80 percent of the time symptoms resolve within a few weeks without interventions); second, patients have inflammation in the blood vessels that result in blood clots (those that develop in the brain can cause small or large strokes); and third, patients have damage to the blood vessels in the brain (blood vessels provide oxygen and nutrients to the brain) that cause blood and chemicals to leak into the brain, killing brain cells and causing seizures, confusion, or bleeds in the brain. This can lead to memory loss, confusion, cognitive impairments, and Alzheimer’s disease later in life. 

Courtesy: Majid Fotuhi
MRI A: balance affected. MRI B: decision making and processing information and attention is affected. MRI C: emotions are affected. May develop depression, OCD or bipolar disorder. MRI D: memory affected. May develop Alzheimer’s disease. MRI E: balance and equilibrium affected. MRI F: difficulty thinking, confusion.

That’s why Fotuhi says early intervention is so important. “We know that, for example, when patients are in neuro-COVID stage two and have strokes, we can treat them with blood thinners and we can provide things for them such as vigorous exercise and brain stimulation to help people improve their brain function.”

“When patients don’t know these things, the symptoms linger. So they struggle and they struggle and they struggle. They may lose their job, but this may also affect their relationship,” Fotuhi said. “So, the husband may think that you don’t love him as much because you don’t do things for him as much as you used to or you may be impatient and argue and your spouse won’t know these are the consequences of COVID-19.” 

Fotuhi is the director of the NeuroGrow Brain Fitness Center, which can treat COVID-19 survivors who are facing neurological side effects. “We do provide treatment for patients who have memory loss due to aging or due to concussion and we have an intensive program that includes brain training [and] an emphasis on diet and exercise,” he said. 

Dr. Fotuhi’s findings have been published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.