AUGUSTA, Ga. — Neurologists at the Medical College of Georgia (MCG) are hard at work studying what can not be seen by the naked eye — how COVID-19 impacts the neurological system. In the Spring of 2020, researchers received $308,000 from the National Institutes of Health to begin a study into the virus’ long-term neurological impacts. Neurologists will monitor 500 participants over five years to see how their symptoms change.
“We’re taking a look at the ACE2 receptor, which is the receptor the coronavirus uses to enter our cells.” Dr. Elizabeth Rutkowski, an MCG neurologist, explains. “It has a lot of genetic disparity between genders, ages and ethnicities. I think that will help uncover a little bit more about this virus and how it interacts and causes lots of different symptoms in different individuals.”
Dr. Rutkowski tells NewsChannel 6 people who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 report a wide-range of symptoms related to their neurological system, including headaches, cognitive issues or “brain fog,” depression, anxiety as well as loss of taste and smell.
“We’re looking at the genetics of each person and what makes them more susceptible to these more complex outcomes. We’re also looking at antibody status to see if people are at higher risk for this.”
Study participants are given several cognitive tests, asked to fill out a mood questionnaire and complete a smell and taste test. They can also opt to give blood samples. Ammar Jihad is one of several participants being monitored. He says his COVID-19 symptoms were not severe. He was fatigued, had body aches and experienced, what he describes as, a “burning nose.”
“A lot of people are concerned about everything going on,” he says. “Any way I can help and give answers, I’m more than happy to help.”
The team at MCG is also studying how COVID-19 impacts a person’s mental health. Some people report feeling anxious or depressed. However, Rutkowski acknowledges identifying the relationship between these disorders and the virus can be difficult.
“It’s hard to say if it’s just [happening] because of a pandemic,” she explains. “Everyone is losing their social networks, and it’s a time when a lot of Americans feel depressed and anxious. But, I do feel that those who are particularly affected by these neurological symptoms tend to score much higher than we would expect.”