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Is COVID-19 long-haul depression tied to brain inflammation? CAMH study aims to find out

Is COVID-19 long-haul depression tied to brain inflammation? CAMH study aims to find out
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The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health announced it has begun a clinical study on people who recovered from COVID-19 with long-haul symptoms of depression, with hopes of unlocking new treatment for those who are struggling.

The hospital announced the study Friday, led by Dr. Jeff Meyer, head scientist at CAMH’s Neurochemical Imaging Program in Mood and Anxiety Disorders. It is the first of its kind in Canada to study the link between COVID-19 and depression using rare imaging technology that detects inflammation in the brain.

Meyer said the focus on brain inflammation is , which revealed that brains of people with depression had 30 per cent more inflammation on average than those who are not depressed. That led to studies on whether anti-inflammation medication could help depressed patients recover.

For COVID long-haulers with symptoms of depression, Meyer said inflammation could be the reason behind the virus’s cognitive long-haul effects. In a recent survey of Canadians with lingering effects of COVID-19 , many reported cognitive symptoms like “brain fog,” dizziness, anxiety and insomnia, with some struggling for up to 11 months after their initial infection.

“It’s possible that the brain inflammation could be important in causing the brain fog,” Meyer said. “The way to test this is to first show there is brain inflammation, and second that if you interfere with the brain inflammation, you’ll get some level of recovery.”

Meyer added that in other cognitive illnesses like Alzheimer’s or dementia, inflammation can lead to worsening of symptoms.

Research on long-term effects of COVID-19 has grown since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, with some linking the virus to a number of mental illnesses and cognitive impairments. found one in three of COVID-19 patients was diagnosed with a psychiatric or neurological condition after their initial infection. For those sick enough to require hospitalization, 80 per cent had at least one neurological or mental side effect.

Meyer said CAMH’s study, which is currently recruiting participants, is focusing primarily on people who have experienced depression since testing positive for COVID-19, but will include those who experience other cognitive symptoms alongside depression. Proof of a positive test is required to participate, Meyer added, and can be obtained by contacting the centre where the test was done.

COVID-19 long-haulers have previously expressed the need for more research and treatment options in Canada, as well as frustration tied to experiencing lingering and debilitating symptoms of a virus scientists are still working to understand. Susie Goulding, the founder of Covid Long-Haulers Support Group Canada, previously told the Star her treatment involved multiple brain scans and several months of rehab with an interdisciplinary team of doctors.

“It hasn’t been easy,” Goulding said. “It’s been one struggle to the next.”

Meyer said part of the delay in conducting more research is due to the lengthy process it takes for research proposals and funding to be approved. For this study, Meyer said CAMH applied for funding from the Canadian Institute of Health Research after drafting a proposal for the study late last summer. Funding was finally approved this spring, he said, and the study began just over a month ago.

Meyer said CAMH is uniquely positioned to do this type of research, as it holds one of the few brain imaging centres in the world with Positron Emission Tomography , or PET capabilities. This technology goes further than MRIs or CT scans and can detect signs of brain inflammation that are not possible to see otherwise.
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