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Turku researchers probe possible Covid, mental illness links

The researchers are specifically interested in whether Covid has direct or indirect impacts on the human brain.

Image: Igor Stevanovic / AOP

After the Spanish Flu claimed the lives of an estimated 50 million people around the world just over a century ago, the pandemic faded in the year 1920. But not long after there was a major uptick in mental health problems like schizophrenia and depression seen in the survivors of the global epidemic.

Now, amid another pandemic, some researchers want to know whether Covid-19 could have an impact on people's mental health. One of those researchers is neurobiology research chief Eleanor Coffey, from Åbo Akademi University in southwestern Finland's city of Turku.

"It's long been known that there could be links between mental disorders and viral infections. When Covid began to spread around the world in the spring of 2020, we became immediately interested in seeing how it could affect the human brain," she said.

More than 6,000 scientific articles about how Covid externally affects people's mental health have already been published. The disease has caused mental trauma, PTSD, as well as social and economic problems that indirectly led to mental illness.

Additionally, the loneliness caused by epidemic-related lockdowns and quarantines have worsened the quality of life for many. The situation even prompted mental illness in some, including in many young people, according to previous studies.

What does Covid do to the brain?

But the international team of researchers are specifically interested in whether the actual virus that causes Covid has direct or indirect impacts on the human brain. Can, for example, the virus lead to changes in a person's blood that end up affecting the central nervous system — or vice versa?

"We already know that a viral infection in pregnant women increases the risk of the child developing schizophrenia later in life, but we do not know exactly how and why it happens. One hope is that this research will help us better understand what happens in the brain and create mental illness," Coffey said.

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Eleanor Coffey's research project "Mitigating mental illness after effects of COVID-19 infection" received funding of 200,000 euros.

As the pandemic began, Coffey and the research team she leads at Turku Bioscience immediately sought and secured financing from governmental funding outfit, the Academy of Finland, in order to study the topic.

With the help of other researchers from Johns Hopkins University in the US and Ulm University in Germany, the team started examining blood samples of Covid patients. They wanted to see — at the molecular level — what happens to the cells of patients suffering from neurological symptoms linked to Covid.

Too many samples

One problem the effort ran into was too many patients to examine, according to Coffey, who explained that the large number of cases in the US resulted in congested emergency rooms at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Johns Hopkins also serves as a research hospital and the researchers initially wanted samples for their work taken from patients as soon as they arrived at the facility. But health care staff often prioritised caring for the patients rather than using time to take samples for research purposes, a situation which delayed the research team's efforts.

"We have seen interesting changes in the samples, but so far don't have enough samples or an extensive enough long-term follow-up. We cannot draw any conclusions before the research is complete," Coffey explained.

The research chief noted that the best way a person can protect themselves from possible mental illness during the pandemic is avoid getting Covid and to get vaccinated.

"Mental illness is more associated with serious illness, while it seems less likely to occur in people who only have milder symptoms," she said.

The researchers hope to be done with examining the subjects' blood samples by the end of this year, after which they will be able to present their initial findings.