The effects of COVID-19 on cognitive performance in a community-based cohort: a COVID symptom study biobank prospective cohort study

Nathan J Cheetham, Rose Penfold, Valentina Giunchiglia, Vicky Bowyer, Carole H Sudre, Liane S Canas, Jie Deng, Benjamin Murray, Eric Kerfoot, Michela Antonelli, Khaled Rjoob, Erika Molteni, Marc F Österdahl, Nicholas R Harvey, William R Trender, Michael H Malim, Katie J Doores, Peter J Hellyer, Marc Modat, Alexander HammersSebastien Ourselin, Emma L Duncan, Adam Hampshire, Claire J Steves

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BACKGROUND: Cognitive impairment has been reported after many types of infection, including SARS-CoV-2. Whether deficits following SARS-CoV-2 improve over time is unclear. Studies to date have focused on hospitalised individuals with up to a year follow-up. The presence, magnitude, persistence and correlations of effects in community-based cases remain relatively unexplored.

METHODS: Cognitive performance (working memory, attention, reasoning, motor control) was assessed in a prospective cohort study of participants from the United Kingdom COVID Symptom Study Biobank between July 12, 2021 and August 27, 2021 (Round 1), and between April 28, 2022 and June 21, 2022 (Round 2). Participants, recruited from the COVID Symptom Study smartphone app, comprised individuals with and without SARS-CoV-2 infection and varying symptom duration. Effects of COVID-19 exposures on cognitive accuracy and reaction time scores were estimated using multivariable ordinary least squares linear regression models weighted for inverse probability of participation, adjusting for potential confounders and mediators. The role of ongoing symptoms after COVID-19 infection was examined stratifying for self-perceived recovery. Longitudinal analysis assessed change in cognitive performance between rounds.

FINDINGS: 3335 individuals completed Round 1, of whom 1768 also completed Round 2. At Round 1, individuals with previous positive SARS-CoV-2 tests had lower cognitive accuracy (N = 1737, β = -0.14 standard deviations, SDs, 95% confidence intervals, CI: -0.21, -0.07) than negative controls. Deficits were largest for positive individuals with ≥12 weeks of symptoms (N = 495, β = -0.22 SDs, 95% CI: -0.35, -0.09). Effects were comparable to hospital presentation during illness (N = 281, β = -0.31 SDs, 95% CI: -0.44, -0.18), and 10 years age difference (60-70 years vs. 50-60 years, β = -0.21 SDs, 95% CI: -0.30, -0.13) in the whole study population. Stratification by self-reported recovery revealed that deficits were only detectable in SARS-CoV-2 positive individuals who did not feel recovered from COVID-19, whereas individuals who reported full recovery showed no deficits. Longitudinal analysis showed no evidence of cognitive change over time, suggesting that cognitive deficits for affected individuals persisted at almost 2 years since initial infection.

INTERPRETATION: Cognitive deficits following SARS-CoV-2 infection were detectable nearly two years post infection, and largest for individuals with longer symptom durations, ongoing symptoms, and/or more severe infection. However, no such deficits were detected in individuals who reported full recovery from COVID-19. Further work is needed to monitor and develop understanding of recovery mechanisms for those with ongoing symptoms.

FUNDING: Chronic Disease Research Foundation, Wellcome Trust, National Institute for Health and Care Research, Medical Research Council, British Heart Foundation, Alzheimer's Society, European Union, COVID-19 Driver Relief Fund, French National Research Agency.

Original languageEnglish
Article number102086
Early online date22 Aug 2023
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2023


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