Study shines a light on covid brain fog

Photo by David Matos via Unsplash

Does the coronavirus affect cognition?

Study shines a light on covid brain fog

Covid-19 might very well damage the way our brain performs. Master students of the clinical neuropsychology department are doing a worldwide study to find out more. ‘We are really contributing to something meaningful.’
15 April om 11:19 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 19 April 2021
om 15:54 uur.
April 15 at 11:19 AM.
Last modified on April 19, 2021
at 15:54 PM.


Door Felien van Kooij

15 April om 11:19 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 19 April 2021
om 15:54 uur.

By Felien van Kooij

April 15 at 11:19 AM.
Last modified on April 19, 2021
at 15:54 PM.

Felien van Kooij

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It’s a well-known fact by now that some people lose their sense of smell when they contract covid. But have you ever heard of the covid brain fog? Memory loss and concentration issues could be symptoms. 

‘We still don’t know much about these neurological effects of the virus, though, or if they are really linked to covid’, says Chiara Biserni, master student of clinical neuropsychology. She’s part of the UG-based research team Cognition & Covid-19 (COCO-19) that is now looking into the possible effects of covid on the brain. 

Most brain-related research has gone into how the coronavirus affects people’s state of mind. ‘Those studies look at the psychological effects, like a possible increase of depression and anxiety, but our research goes one step further’, says Carina Bock, another student in the COCO-19 team. ‘We’re not only interested in the psychological effects that are linked to the virus or the pandemic in general, but we look into the neuropsychological functioning as well.’ 

This means that they research how the virus affects the brain’s cognitive functions, such as our memory or planning ability. 

Receptors in the brain

Other viruses, like sars and hiv, already showed negative cognitive effects. ‘That is why we wanted to investigate this for covid, too’, says Carina. Because the subject is still new, the students are excited to be able to work on it. ‘We are really contributing to something meaningful.’

How can covid affect brain functions when it mainly attacks the respiratory system? ‘The virus acts on certain receptors, many of which are located in the lungs’, Carina explains. ‘But these receptors are also located in other organs, like the heart and the brain, so we suspect the virus hits the brain as well.’ 

The study is looking at how covid impacts how fast people can switch between tasks, their planning skills, or how impulsive they are. ‘We’re going to test for so many different functions of the brain and that makes it super interesting’, says Chiara. ‘I hope we come up with some significant results.’

Self-reported data

The testing will be done via an online questionnaire. Often, participants of covid-19 studies need to go to a laboratory where a researcher will evaluate how they perform when doing certain tasks. ‘But in our study, they need to evaluate themselves on these tasks’, says Carina. 

If a participant is in bad health overall and then contracts covid, their answers will differ from people who are generally in good health. And so the researchers need to understand the participants’ living situation and lifestyle, says Chiara, ‘because it determines how they experience covid-related issues and that impacts our measurements’.

The advantage of this kind of testing is that because they can do it in their own home, participants may for example experience less stress that can impact the results. ‘A laboratory is an artificial situation that can make them act differently, which can lead to different results’, Chiara explains.

First results

Participants who have experienced covid or who are recovering are compared to participants who have never had it. They fill out several questionnaires divided into four categories: general health, mental health, neuropsychological health, and personality aspects. They need to fill these out again after three months and after six months. ‘That way, we can look at the long-term effects’, says Chiara. ‘Maybe we see a spontaneous recovery after some time, but if the cognitive issues persist, it suggests that covid does indeed affect cognition.’

Carina has already evaluated some preliminary data from the first ninety volunteers. ‘Those showed that people who had covid performed worse with regards to their working memory’, she says. Our working memory determines how much information we can hold in our brain to use at a later point, such as recalling an instruction that was given earlier to execute a task at a later point. ‘The people who had covid seem to struggle with this more.’ 

Bigger sample group

The team is now working on getting a bigger and more diverse sample group. They recently started collaborating with the Wilhelmina hospital in Assen and universities in Mexico and Congo. ‘With the data from hospitalised covid patients, we hope to see more distinctive differences, because they experience more severe symptoms’, says Chiara. ‘Making cross-country comparisons will also help us to get more conclusive results and generalise the results to different cultures.’ 

If covid is shown to have a negative impact on cognitive abilities, they hope this will catalyse research into developing therapies to help patients recover. ‘And it will hopefully push people to avoid getting covid, because it shows there are consequences for all of us’, says Chiara. 

The COCO-19 team is still looking for participants for the study. Everyone can apply, whether you’ve had covid or not, and you can participate anonymously. More information on the COCO-19 website.

‘Board, you must switch to a sustainable search engine’

Green Office and student factions argue for Ecosia

‘Board, you must switch to a sustainable search engine’

In a letter to the board of directors, Green Office ambassadors and the student parties in the university council argue that the UG should switch to ‘green’ search engine Ecosia.
12 April om 16:27 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 13 April 2021
om 16:34 uur.
April 12 at 16:27 PM.
Last modified on April 13, 2021
at 16:34 PM.


Door Felien van Kooij

12 April om 16:27 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 13 April 2021
om 16:34 uur.

By Felien van Kooij

April 12 at 16:27 PM.
Last modified on April 13, 2021
at 16:34 PM.

Felien van Kooij

Student-redacteur
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Last October, the ambassadors started a petition to get the university to switch. So far, 1,200 people have signed this petition. Reason enough for the ambassadors and other supporters to write to the board directly.

Ecosia plants a tree for every forty-five queries. They pay for this with money they make from advertising. If Ecosia becomes the UG’s standard search engine, the initiators say, it’s a good step towards making the university more sustainable. The current search engine is Google.

Time for a change

‘We want a greener university, and it’s time for change’, says Femke de Ruiter with student faction SOG. DAG, Lijst Calimero, and De Vrije Student also signed the letter. ‘We hope the board takes our suggestion into consideration and that they’ll invite us to come up with a plan. Ultimately, sustainability is important for the university, and switching to a search engine like Ecosia only makes sense.’

The Green Office says there are no technical objections, but the switch can only be made if the board of directors initiates it.

Universities like Ohio State and the University of Maastricht have already installed Ecosia as their standard search engine. ‘The University of Bristol planted three hundred trees in the first months after installing it’, says De Ruiter. ‘That shows the impact it can have.’

Privacy

There is one issue: the UG has an agreement with Google that guarantees the privacy of its users, and Ecosia does not offer this guarantee in its standard package. ‘However, we could make those arrangements with them.’

In fact, the letter states that overall, Ecosia’s privacy settings are even better. Unlike Google, it doesn’t create user profiles, and it deletes its data every seven days. ‘At some point, we have to make that definitive decision to become a greener university. The board of directors should do so now’, says De Ruiter.

No structure, no motivation

Studying is hard during the crisis

No structure, no motivation

Why is it currently so hard for students to motivate themselves to study? Because the pandemic has removed any semblance of structure from our lives, say UG psychologists Nico van Yperen and Alexander Minnaert.
20 January om 11:57 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 20 January 2021
om 12:21 uur.
January 20 at 11:57 AM.
Last modified on January 20, 2021
at 12:21 PM.


Door Felien van Kooij

20 January om 11:57 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 20 January 2021
om 12:21 uur.

By Felien van Kooij

January 20 at 11:57 AM.
Last modified on January 20, 2021
at 12:21 PM.

Felien van Kooij

Student-redacteur
Volledig bio
Student editor
Full bio

Why would you get up early to attend a 9 a.m. online class when you can just watch it back later? Now that many students are out of work, sports are cancelled, and classes are being recorded, structure has disappeared from daily life.

The result? Students lack motivation to study or do other things.

‘All this freedom people have is new’, says sport and performance psychologist Nico van Yperen. ‘We’re free to do what we want, whenever we want.’ We watch television on demand and working from home means we get to plan our own day. ‘The advantage is that we can do what suits us best.’

Structure and control

But not everyone benefits from that freedom; many people actually need structure and control. Van Yperen: ‘Some people need more structure in order to be productive than others.’ This is determined in part by genetics, but also through learned behaviour.

The degree to which people are able to deal with the situation and continue to perform depends on how well they can structure their day. ‘The students who are currently asking for help from their student adviser probably aren’t very good at it’, says Van Yperen.

Emotion

Why is it so hard to motivate yourself and keep working if you don’t have any structure to your life?

Educational psychologist Alexander Minnaert explains that motivation mainly stems from emotion. ‘People who enjoy their work are motivated. But if you’re worried about whether or not you’ll pass your exam, you can easily get demotivated.’

The emotions that motivate you are determined by structure. ‘Structure impacts how you experience things. It provides security’, says Minnaert. It makes you feel like you’re in control of the situation, which positively impacts your ability to perform. ‘The pandemic has led to a loss of structure, which leads to agitation and uncertainty.’

Goals

Under normal circumstances, people have goals to work towards, but now, they barely even know what’s going to happen next month. ‘People can’t set goals the way they used to’, says Minnaert. ‘They don’t know what’s going to happen and they can’t challenge themselves.’

As if that wasn’t enough, students are also being given more responsibility. It used to be the university’s job to make sure exam halls were a suitable environment to sit exams, but now students have to take their exams at home.

‘We don’t want to make students to all the work, but that’s the reality of the situation’, says Minnaert. The self-managing skills of students are being taxed to the extreme. But not everyone has those skills, which means some students are performing better than others.

Extra guidance

Van Yperen says the university should help students who are struggling in this regard. The departments should facilitate studying as much as possible. People will need extra guidance, and they’ll need it on an individual level. ‘Every situation is different’, he says. ‘When I counsel athletes, I have to determine what works for each of them.’

Minnaert argues there should be a better balance between people planning their own day and structure. One tip is to find a fellow student to spar with, or to form study groups, online if necessary. ‘Talking to others adds a social aspect to studying, and you can motivate each other’, says Minnaert.

Live classes

He also advises students to utilise all the help your department can give you. Try to watch your classes live; it’s the only time you have any actual contact with the university. Plus, the structure of live classes will help you stay motivated.

‘And don’t let the fact that the current situation is making things difficult get you down’, says Van Yperen. ‘When an athlete loses a competition, they don’t give up. They go back to training to improve.’

Instead, do something constructive and try to figure out how you can grow. ‘These are not good times. But we must strive to find out how we can come out the other end as better people.’