By Kathleen Berger, Executive Producer for Science and Technology
Across the globe, more than 400 million people survived COVID-19. But for some, there are long-term effects. Adnan Qureshi, MD, is a professor of clinical neurology at the University of Missouri School of Medicine in Columbia. He became interested in certain complaints.
“They cannot function at the same level,” said Qureshi. “They are actually having difficulties with memory, they’re having lapses in memory, they’re having difficulty in mental processing of intellectual tasks.”
Qureshi and a team of University of Missouri researchers investigated, showing a link between COVID-19 and an increased risk of dementia.
“Mental processing is slow, is impaired, and they just can’t function at the same level as they were able to do before the infection,” Qureshi said.
In order to make the connection and get some answers, Qureshi’s colleagues with MU College of Engineering and the Institute for Data Science and Informatics analyzed data from more than 110 health care facilities in the U.S. The research team found that patients hospitalized with pneumonia associated with COVID-19 may be at risk for dementia. They analyzed the Cerner Real-World Data extracted from the electronic medical records of healthcare facilities that have a data use agreement with Cerner Corporation.
“By looking at this kind of large-scale patient data set, the data analytics is going to help us to connect the dots, to really look at what could be potential issues for some certain population of the patients,” said Chi-Ren Shyu, PhD, Director of the MU Institute for Data Science & Informatics.
Out of the more than 10,000 patients with pneumonia associated with COVID-19, 312 people or 3% developed new onset dementia. This typically happened within six months of the pneumonia diagnosis.
“For computational approach or artificial intelligence approach,” explained Shyu, “What could be the potential impact for patients (with COVID-19 diagnosis)? And then how we use AI methods to quickly hash through potential groups, subgroups and the potential associations we have. Then that’s what the computer can do for us.”
The results from the data analysis show that while developing dementia after pneumonia is rare, the odds are 30% higher among patients with pneumonia associated with COVID-19 compared to other pneumonias.
“What we found was that the risk of actually having dementia in people who got pneumonia because of COVID-19 was significantly higher than people who get pneumonia because of other illnesses. So that actually suggests that it’s not just the pneumonia, there’s something unique about COVID-19, or the SARS-CoV-2 infection,” said Qureshi.
Qureshi said further studies would provide more insights into why COVID-19 may increase dementia risk. And patients who are 70-years old and older have the greatest increased risk of dementia.
“SARS-CoV-2 infection actually results in a lot of inflammation in the body and these inflammatory markers actually are able to cross into the brain. And what we’re seeing is the consequence of these excessive inflammatory markers circulating in the blood entering the brain and then subsequently causing brain damage. And the dementia is simply a consequence of this brain damage.”
The researchers hope this new information can be used to develop tailored treatments, or screenings, for the patients who are most at risk, an idea known as precision medicine.
“Numbers and data are the new currency, right? And with those numbers, they aren’t just publications, they aren’t just some report,” said Shyu. “But by moving the numbers into the clinical practice, I think that’s where we get the most excitement in how to utilize the numbers we discover and apply that to the bedside. That’s what we are looking for.”
“I think that the data, particularly for elderly patients, patients who are 70 years or greater, seems to be that dementia was prevalent enough that there is actually a case to be made that individuals should be screened once they have recovered to make sure that their cognition, their memory, they do not have any deficits from the infection itself,” said Qureshi.