The COVID-19 Pandemic is Rewiring Our Brains

How the pandemic is affecting us both individually and as a society


Masked protestors during a Black Lives Matter rally in June 2020.

Caley Monnier, Co-Editor in Chief

The Coronavirus pandemic is hard to avoid in current media. With fear mongering news websites and conflicting resources, it’s hard to separate facts and fiction from the reality that is COVID-19, especially with the number of unknowns surrounding the disease. What are the long-term effects? What is COVID doing to our bodies? How long will symptoms last? For a lot of these questions, there are limited answers.

While we know the main battlefield of COVID-19 are the lungs, there is another organ the virus is hitting hard: the brain. Scientists are continuing to see trends of Coronavirus cases and neurological conditions in patients.

One factor that is almost concrete in Coronavirus research is the disease’s impact on the olfactory bulb, an important part of the human brain. Seated right at the front of the organ, the bulb is in charge of perceiving smell and taste. If you have had COVID in the past, you know that some of the most common, tell-tale signs of the virus include loss of taste and smell. Two studies have suggested the link between the disease and affliction towards this part of the brain. A study in Iran conducted olfactory bulb testing in 60 COVID patients, with 59 of them coming back with some variation of olfactory dysfunction, which results in the loss of the taste and smell we are all familiar with. A second study in Italy reported that out of 202 mild cases, 64% of these displayed the same olfactory dysfunction.

There is also new research that is showing the olfactory bulb has relations with the production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked with feelings of satisfaction, pleasure, and happiness. This could also account for certain “brain fog” many people have been experiencing as a long term effect of the disease, recording feelings of hopelessness and fatigue.

While olfactory dysfunction has been consecutively proven in many studies, there are still a wide array of mental symptoms of COVID that are unaccounted for. Many patients are struggling with neurological and psychiatric conditions that scientists can’t seem to understand.

For example, pioneering research done at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020 took older Coronavirus patents and recorded their neurological symptoms. 153 COVID cases were looked at with a median age of 77. Any neurological symptoms they experienced were recorded. If one wasn’t the 62% of patients that experienced a cerebrovascular problem–anything resulting from lack of oxygen to the brain, such as strokes and hemorrhages–they suffered from new mental conditions never experienced before their COVID diagnosis. These conditions included new-onset psychosis, “dementia-like” syndromes, and other unspecified mental disorders.

Research is still underway to make sense of these unexpected, drastic symptoms some patients face.

While COVID-19 has altered the individual lives of millions of patients, there is also a social factor that this pandemic plays in the general public’s mental and physical health.  Throughout history, pandemics and traumatic events have grasped at groups of people for long periods of time in both psychological and social ways.

Take 9/11 for example, a traumatic event that has touched an entire nation with feelings of anxiety, terror, and dread. We know that as a society, events like these affect us psychologically, but new research shows that it can also affect us neurologically. A Cornell study conducted seven years after 9/11 studies New York civilians living 1.5 miles away from the World Trade Center at the time of the attack, and compares them with others living over 200 miles away. Their subjects had no mental or physical illnesses, or large past traumas on record. Their results were telling. People living near the World Trade Center had on average a smaller amygdala and less gray matter in their brains. The amygdala is an area in the brain that detects threatening stimuli, triggering fear and panic in the brain. A smaller one means it is more reactive, therefore being more anxious in nature. Gray matter is an integral part of the nervous system that holds important cell bodies and nerves which allow us to move, remember, and regular emotion. The larger this is, the more stable our brains can function.

This study gives scientific background behind the effect that collective traumatic events can have on the individual’s brain. Whether we will see this with the Coronavirus pandemic, I believe, is already answered for us. From the constant fear of a runny nose, to the feeling of nakedness without a mask stringing your face, we’re already seeing the long term effects COVID-19 has ingrained into our society.

With this, remember that we are not alone in these trying times. Society is facing this problem as one, and even if we don’t have all of the answers, scientists are working diligently to protect us from any more harm that this pandemic may bring us, and shed light on this enigmatic disease.