Researchers at Linköping University in Sweden found differences in brain tissue structure between 16 patients previously hospitalized for COVID-19 with lingering symptoms and healthy individuals. These findings, published in the journal Brain Communications, provide insights into the underlying mechanisms of persistent neurological issues following COVID-19.

Previous studies on persistent COVID-19-related problems have used MRI brain scans, revealing differences compared to healthy brains, but these differences were not specific to COVID-19.

“It can be frustrating for me as a doctor when I understand that the patients have problems, but I can’t find an explanation because there’s nothing in the MRI scan to explain it. To me, this underlines the importance of trying other examination technologies to understand what’s happening in the brain in patients with persisting symptoms after COVID-19,” says Ida Blystad, MD, PhD, neuroradiologist in the department of radiology at Linköping University Hospital.

To address this gap, the researchers conducted a study employing advanced diffusion MRI, focusing on the brain’s white matter, which plays a crucial role in transmitting signals between different parts of the brain and the body. Diffusion MRI is a sensitive technology that can detect changes in the organization of nerve axons, offering insights into the brain’s microscopic structure.

In their study, 16 men who had been hospitalized for severe COVID-19, experiencing persistent symptoms after seven months, were compared to a group of healthy individuals without post-COVID symptoms. Both groups underwent examinations using conventional MRI and diffusion MRI.

The results showed differences in brain white matter structure between the two groups, potentially contributing to the neurological problems experienced by the severe COVID-19 group. However, due to the small sample size, the researchers are cautious about drawing definitive conclusions. These findings underscore the need to investigate the long-term effects of COVID-19 on the brain using advanced MRI technology.

Further research aims to explore the specific impact of white matter changes on brain activity and communication between different brain regions in post-COVID fatigue patients. Additionally, researchers will investigate whether these differences between the two groups persist over time or if they eventually disappear.