Is long COVID a neurological disease? Scientists are doing more research

Polysonographer Marie Derolus prepares Ghenya Grondin, who first was sick with COVID-19 in March 2020 and has had long COVID ever since, for a sleep study in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., December 12, 2022. Grondin continues to experience pain, cognitive issues, and fatigue. Photo by REUTERS/Brian Snyder.

Go to any restaurant, grocery store, or social event these days, and it’s easy to forget we’re still in the middle of a global pandemic that’s killed more than 1 million Americans. Long COVID is also affecting millions, bringing fatigue, brain fog, and shortness of breath that can last for months or years after the initial infection. Researchers say they’re now honing in on why some people develop long COVID — and it has to do with their brain.

“Many studies now are estimating that about 1 in 5 people who get COVID may develop long COVID symptoms. So we've had over 100 million cases in the United States. So that number is probably somewhere between 20 and 26 million people [who now have long COVID],” says Stephani Sutherland, neuroscientist and science journalist. 

She points out, “It's probably a neuroimmune disorder of some kind, that we're having immune system activation in the brain or in the nervous system that shouldn't be there. And that might include autoimmune attack, which is when the body makes antibodies to fight off the virus. Those antibodies might also recognize our own cells, including our nervous tissue, and that has also been found to be the case. … All of those possibilities are being investigated more.”