A recent study published in Neuropsychopharmacology Reviews says the pandemic has the capacity to alter our brain structure, even if we have not contracted the infection. While the virus, itself, can cause neurological problems, the pandemic, associated stress and anxiety it has brought with it, can cause mood disorders and alter the brain among non-patients as well, the study reveals.
Researchers studying the virus have found out that the implications of the disease go beyond respiratory problems, to causing serious neurological problems as well, even leading to long term damage or death. COVID-19 patients have reported conditions ranging from delirium, headaches, memory loss, attention problem, anxiety, to even brain damage and stroke.
As per experts, this could be due to the physiological changes the body goes through, the immune system’s response to fight the disease and the depleting oxygen levels in patients with moderate or severe symptoms.
The virus can gain access into the brain via the olfactory bulb in the forebrain. This is also why loss of smell is an important symptom among patients. The olfactory bulb in the brain is rich in the chemical dopamine, which is associated with pleasure, motivation, action and motor control. COVID-19 could alter the levels of dopamine and other chemicals such as serotonin, the hormone that stabilises mood and is responsible for feelings of wellbeing and boosting learning speed.
It is also not just the direct neurological effects of the disease that are worrisome – families of the patients go through immense stress, the fear that they may contract the virus, the isolation and the worry over their loved one’s health. Further, those who have not been affected by the virus may also have altered brain structures. This is because repeated stress and anxiety over the pandemic, and its social and financial fallout, can trigger inflammation of the brain.
Studies have shown that chronic stress and inflammation can shrink the prefrontal cortex of the brain (the area which is associated with learning and memory). Stress also increases the amygdala, the part of the brain that coordinates responses to environmental triggers, playing an important part in processing strong emotions such as anger and fear.
Reversing the damage
The good news, however, is that the damage is not permanent and can be reversed. The brain can be trained into rewiring itself, where even serious damage to it such as memory loss or depression, can be improved by altering the functioning of the brain. The study recommends using mindfulness and exercises to help combat stress on the brain.
The ability to be completely in the present, with the mind focused on what is happening at the current moment, is a difficult one to acquire. However, by practising mindfulness, you accept the thoughts, feelings, sensations and happenings around you without reacting to it, judging it or finding the need to do anything about it.
Research shows that mindfulness helps to lower stress by reducing the activity in the amygdala, enabling one to focus better on completing their work more efficiently, allowing one to be more aware of other people’s emotions and sentiments, which means that one is less likely to get into situations that add on to the stress.
Studies also show that the brain’s grey matter, which is the area containing the most neuronal cell bodies in the brain, involved in musle control and sensory perceptions such as speech, hearing, memory, emotions, get enhanced with just eight weeks of mindfulness meditation programme.
You do not need a specific time or place to practise mindfulness. It can be incorporated into daily lives by taking some time out and focusing on the breath. Mindfulness is also not about blocking out thoughts or unpleasant feeling, but rather about accepting them and then energising these thoughts into something more positive.
With the pandemic limiting movement and communication between people in many regions, the study suggests that technology can be used to aid the recovery process. Apps on portable devices such as smartphones and tablets offer platforms to connect with experts, have cognitive behavioural therapy sessions, meditation sessions, and mindfulness training.
Medical therapists even recommend the use of these apps as a supplementary treatment and as useful resources to aid in the recovery process. Some mental health apps that can be downloaded from App Store and Google Play include Calm, Headspace, Happify and Pacifica. While many of these apps are free downloads, you can upgrade and customise them by paying their fees.
The report suggests that wearable devices such as activity trackers can be used to monitor heart rates, BP levels and sleeping patterns. This can then be used to track if the wearer has benefited from activities such as exercise, extra sleep and meditation.
Studies have also shown that people with severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia and mood disorders, may be more physically inactive than people from the general population. Wearable devices and fitness trackers could provide a lifestyle intervention encouraging them to be more physically active and to reach their daily fitness goals.
Gamified cognitive training
The study also notes that gamified cognitive training could help improve memory, attention and increase motivation. Play therapy has been used traditionally in child counselling; this has moved to the online space as well with advancements in technology.
There is a lot of research being carried out on incorporating gamification (using game mechanics in non-gaming scenarios) in mental health counselling. Studies on cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) based games which are multi-level games that are designed to challenge users to confront challenges, progress through milestones and collect rewards and points, have shown positive results.
Researchers are also studying the use of entertainment games such as Tetris to improve mood through stress release and emotional regulation. These games, when done in a controlled setup, have been known to facilitate deep learning, enhance concentration and improve retention of information.
Developed by the University of Auckland in partnership with Metia Interactive, SPARX is another video game which is intended to help youngsters deal with mild to moderate stress, anxiety or depression. The fantasy-based video game provides users with a Guide, where they then choose an avatar and go through different challenges, including shooting negative thoughts and solving puzzles.
Going forward, such techniques can help us improve our brain health and prepare us for similar events in the future. The study suggests the use of these techniques right from school to promote lifelong resilience.