In this podcast (episode #298) and blog, I am going to talk about the COVID-19 virus and its potential impact on the brain, and how we can manage and improve cognitive side-effects of the virus.
This a part two of my series on how the COVID pandemic has affected our brains. In last week’s podcast, I discussed the difference between general and extreme anxiety, how anxiety levels have dramatically increased over the pandemic, and how has impacted how our brains function on a day-to-day level, especially if left unmanaged over long periods of time.
Yet, as I mentioned last week, these changes are not set in stone. As our mind changes, our brain and body changes. And, with directed mind input, or what I call “mind-management”, we can learn how to shift and direct these neuroplastic changes in our brain.
In this podcast, I am going to focus more specifically on what COVID-19 actually does to the brain, and the importance of using directed neuroplasticity to manage these symptoms. For those who have suffered from COVID-19, new research indicates that the virus can potentially affect the brain, causing issues with thinking, memory, mood, and dizziness. As we know, for many people the virus had a strange effect on their ability to smell and taste. Researchers believe that the nerves that carry information from the nose to the brain were damaged by the virus, which, in turn, affected the senses.
It appears that the effects of the virus seem to track along the same pathway that the mind uses to build our experiences into a physical thought tree:
- It starts at the entorhinal cortex, which is like a doorway where information starts being processed. If this is impacted, it can lead to poor understanding and comprehension.
- It then goes to the thalamus (the relay station), which activates existing thoughts with their emotional attitudes. If this is affected, it can lead to poor recall.
- Subsequently, it seems to travel to the hypothalamus, which is like a chemical factory responding to your emotional state (chemicals are released accordingly). If this part of the brain is impacted, it can result in mood issues.
- Next, it travels to the amygdala, our emotional perceptual library. If this is affected, it may result in emotional swings, and/or even hallucinations and delusions.
- It then moves into the hippocampus, which converts short-term memory to long-term memory. If this part of the brain is impacted, it can lead to forgetfulness.
- Lastly, the virus travels to the part of the brain where the the actual thought gets built into the cortex on branches, which are called dendrites. If it negatively impacts this part of the brain, we may battle to form new thoughts.
Researchers have also shown that potential fevers and lack of oxygen can also alter grey matter volume over frontal-temporal area of the brain. This can affect how the neurons communicate in the brain, which may lead to increased impulsivity, aggression, poor decision-making, confusion, creativity, brain fog, and extreme fatigue.
The immune response to the virus can also lead to increased inflammation across the brain, which can backfire when the source of the response isn’t removed. This can depress general cognitive functioning and potentially increase the chances of extreme depression, according to a recent study.
This same study showed that very small blood vessels in the brain were leaking in response to the virus, but not evenly—they were like a series of tiny strokes. This helps explain the variety of COVID symptoms, from memory, emotional and cognitive processing to dizziness when getting up, heart racing, breathing issues and even urinary problems.
But I do believe there is hope. We are only beginning to understand the brain’s incredible capacity to change and heal. Indeed, in my work with people who had traumatic brain injuries and Alzheimer’s, I found that using mind-management to learn new information and process past traumas can be significantly effective in improving memory and cognitive, emotional and social functioning.
Although I have not done any direct research with people who have contracted COVID-19, one thing I would recommend is a lot of brain building activity to help rewire the damaged areas of the brain. It is best to do this for at least 45-60 minutes a day, and more if possible.
Why? We need to use our mind to build or “feed” our brain regularly, just like we need to eat regularly. Brain-building is like eating a healthy diet. It’s a process of “feeding” the brain regularly to make it more resilient and healthy with new and challenging information (the food) that is well “digested,” or deeply understood.
The process of brain-building is rapid. Genes are activated within a few minutes, and a single neuron may gain thousands of new dendritic branches in a very short time. One great way to do this is by reading a small section of something you are interested in, reflecting on it, writing down what this reflection means, comparing it back to the original text to see if you have understood correctly (and editing if need be), and explaining it out loud to make sure you understand it. You should repeat these steps until the article/chapter is done. For more on this, see my books Think, Learn, Succeed and Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess.
You can also try these following brain-building tips:
- Be an infinite learner. Read fiction and non-fiction (fiction is especially great for boosting creativity and problem-solving abilities), listen to podcasts, engage in tough conversations, and travel if possible.
- Don’t fall into the trap of having to be great at something to try it. Embrace the opportunity to learn.
- Practice using an experimental mindset, which means to explore, test, analyze results, pivot if it doesn’t work, and repeat.
For more on COVID and the brain, listen to my podcast (episode #298). If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing. And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media. (Don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).
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1:40, 15:20, 22:30 How the COVID virus can impact the brain
2:45, 6:50 The brain’s amazing capacity to change & heal
5:50 Anxiety is a signal, not a disease
7:50 How to manage & direct brain changes
12:15 Immunity, inflammation & the COVID virus
24:30, 30:00, 37:40 How brain building can help heal the mind & brain
25:40 Your brain is always changing, and you can learn how to direct these changes!
26:30 Ways to manage the emotional & physical effects of COVID-19
This podcast and blog is for educational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. We always encourage each person to make the decision that seems best for their situation with the guidance of a medical professional.