Understanding the Impact of COVID-19 on Personality and Brain Function: A Grim Reality or a Wake-Up Call?

Opinion
Article

Opinion: Kevin Kavanagh, MD, examines a summary of studies on how COVID-19 may damage the brain's frontal lobes, alter personality traits and cognitive functions, and potentially reshape society's dynamics.

Individuals With Cognitive Issues, Headaches, and Brain Fog.    (Adobe Stock 151385223 by pathdoc)

Individuals With Cognitive Issues, Headaches, and Brain Fog.

(Adobe Stock 151385223 by pathdoc)

The human mind is a miracle of nature. It is the seat of the soul and separates us from other animals on earth. It is a biochemical wonder that, if not cherished and guarded, can be irreparably injured. We have seen many good people corrupted by the insults of nature and those of humanity. Most recently, a mass killer in Maine was born after exposure to weapons blasts while serving in the US Army. His brain was injured, and his personality changed. We have seen this happen commonly with meth and other narcotics. Personality changes, and a person with an addiction is born.

Much of our personality is hardwired, and damage to the brain can change how we react to other people. Trauma and medical treatments can do this, and sometimes, medicine can change the brain’s function for the good. Damage to the brain’s frontal lobes is problematic, and personality can change dramatically. We have seen this after frontal lobotomies, where the frontal lobes are surgically separated from the rest of the brain.

Infections can also change personalities. In the animal kingdom, a bacterium known as toxoplasmosis is spread by cats. When it infects mice, they become less afraid and more likely to be eaten. The jewel wasp can also destroy specific sections of a cockroach’s brain, making it a “zombie” and a willing incubator for its young.
 
A nightmare scenario would be if mankind were targeted by a pathogen that attacks our frontal lobes and changes our personalities, making us less likely to get along, reach a consensus, and understand others' points of view. Such a pathogen could bring an end to society as we know it. Unfortunately, the nightmare may be real and taking shape in SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

One of the first signs that something was amiss was a report in the American Journal of Medicine that described an increase in traffic accidents among those who were vaccine-hesitant. This report was panned by a local radio station, which I listened to and used as an example of the unhinged scientific community. But I started to wonder if this was a sign that COVID-19 could make some individuals more aggressive. And then, there was the report of higher rates of concussion in high school athletes following COVID-19. I started to worry.

We now know that SARS-CoV-2 can damage any part of the brain. However, of concern is its propensity to damage the frontal lobes, possibly even targeting this region. This damage has been documented on CT and PET scans and electroencephalograms. Significant damage can occur to the orbitofrontal cortex (part of the frontal lobes’ prefrontal cortex) and parahippocampal gyrus. These regions have extensive connections to the olfactory cortex. Damage to the latter region has been implicated as one of the possible mechanisms for the loss of smell, which COVID-19 patients commonly experience.

COVID-19 patients also demonstrate behavioral and executive dysfunction. The latter term means patients have difficulty in critical thinking, such as compromising and reaching a consensus, and difficulties in controlling antisocial behavior and determining when to become aggressive.
 
Brain fog and cognitive difficulties exceed 50% in post-COVID-19 patients. During the pandemic, The New York Times reported that 37% of young adults have “serious difficulty” in remembering and making decisions. In Sweden, a country that had minimal public health interventions, the insurance company “IF” reported that 32% of young adults have brain fog. Recent studies have also documented loss of IQ in COVID-19 patients.
 
Accepting that COVID-19 commonly causes damage to our brains, often the frontal lobes, but not accepting that it can cause personality changes would almost be an indication that some of us have already lost the ability to think critically.

Since the pandemic began, our world has become more dangerous. Brutal wars are breaking out, people are less compromising, and our government has become paralyzed by a lack of consensus. All could be partially explained by a change in behavior caused by SARS-CoV-2 infections.

Each of us is affected differently and to varying degrees, but our population is becoming less intelligent and less tolerant. And some of the world leaders have been severely sick with COVID-19, even hospitalized, significantly increasing the chances for mental changes. Unfortunately, many of our leaders are repeatedly exposed to SARS-CoV-2 and shun vaccines along with public health recommendations, creating an intellectual pathogen feedback loop.
 
This discussion is not fatalistic or even pessimistic—no more than someone trying to prevent sheep from jumping off a cliff. Lundberg-Morris and colleagues have observed that 3 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine have a 73% efficacy in the prevention of the sequelae of long COVID. And we know that masking and clean air will greatly reduce our chances of developing COVID-19 in the first place. Our future is ours to choose.

During a January 2024 Senate hearing on long COVID, multiple Senators emphasized the role and importance of Federal funding for research and clinical trials. Arguably, the most crucial area of research is understanding the effects of SARS-CoV-2 on the human brain and personality since not only do democracies require cooperation and critical thinking, but fundamentally, we, as humans, are at risk of undergoing a retrogressive transformation.

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