Researchers from Tel Aviv University exposed patients with long-term COVID-19 symptoms to intensive Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT) treatment and found significant improvement in cognitive, neurological, and psychiatric functions.
The treatments were accompanied by advanced MRI imaging of the patients’ brains, identifying damage from the COVID-19 virus, and correlating the images with clinical findings, before and after HBOT treatment
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Long COVID, which affects up to 30% of patients infected by the COVID-19 virus, is characterized by a range of debilitating cognitive symptoms such as inability to concentrate, brain fog, forgetfulness, and difficulty recalling words or thoughts – persisting for more than three months, and sometimes up to two years. To date, no effective therapy has been suggested, leaving many millions of sufferers around the world with no remedy.
The study was conducted by the Sagol Center for Hyperbaric Medicine and Research at Tel Aviv University and the Shamir Medical Center (Assaf Harofeh). It was led by Prof. Shai Efrati, Director of the Sagol Center and a faculty member at TAU’s Sackler School of Medicine and Sagol School of Neuroscience, and by Dr. Shani-Itskovich Zilberman from the Sagol Center for Hyperbaric Medicine and TAU’s Sackler School of Medicine. Other chief contributors were Dr. Merav Catalogna, lead data scientist from the Shamir Medical Center (Assaf Harofeh), and Dr. Amir Hadanny from the Sagol Center and TAU’s Sackler School of Medicine. The paper was published in Scientific Reports.
Prof. Efrati explained, “Today we understand that in some patients, the COVID-19 virus penetrates the brain through the cribriform plate, the part of the skull located just above our nose, and triggers chronic brain injury – mainly in brain regions in the frontal lobe, responsible for cognitive function, mental status and pain interpretation. Consequently, affected patients experience a long-term cognitive decline, with symptoms such as brain fog, loss of concentration and mental fatigue.”
Efrati also explained that since the frontal lobe is damaged, patients may suffer from mood disturbance, depression, and anxiety. These Covid related clinical symptoms, identified in patients all over the world, were corroborated by the World Health Organization in an official definition of so-called “long COVID” issued in October 2021, including cognitive dysfunction as one of the common symptoms.
A recent study from the Universities of Cambridge and Exeter reported that 78% of long-term COVID-19 patients experienced difficulties with concentration, 69% reported brain fog, and 68% reported forgetfulness. Thus, long-term COVID-19 effects can be very detrimental to the sufferer’s quality of life, and no effective treatment has yet been found.
This new study was designed as a prospective, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial, including 73 patients with reported post-COVID-19 cognitive symptoms such as inability to concentrate, brain fog, forgetfulness and difficulty recalling words or thoughts, persisting for more than three months following an RT-PCR test confirming COVID-19 infection.
The researchers said that the results “were highly encouraging.” Patients treated with HBOT showed significant improvement, while in the control group long COVID symptoms remained largely unchanged. In HBOT-treated patients, the greatest improvements were exhibited in the global cognitive function, attention, and executive functions (the capacity to plan, organize, initiate, self-monitor and control one’s responses in order to achieve a goal). Other benefits included better information processing speed, improved psychiatric symptoms, more mental energy, better sleep quality, and less body pain. All clinical findings were correlated with the participants’ brain images, indicating a significant change in the parts of the brain related to each function, which had been visibly damaged by the COVID-19 virus.
Dr. Shani-Itskovich Zilberman said, “We know that HBOT repairs brain damage through a process of regeneration – generating new neurons and blood vessels. We believe that the beneficial effects of the unique treatment protocol in this study can be attributed to renewed neuroplasticity and increased brain perfusion in regions associated with cognitive and emotional roles.”