Watercolour illustration of a figure
Watercolour illustration of a figure

Our Aching Brains

COVID-19 has killed more than 4 million people around the globe and has sickened many millions more. The neurological toll on those of us continuing to live through the pandemic may stretch years or decades into the uncertain future.

Bob Grant
Bob Grant

Bob started with The Scientist as a staff writer in 2007. Before joining the team, he worked as a reporter at Audubon and earned a master’s degree in science journalism...

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Oct 1, 2021

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I consider myself relatively lucky in a world that continues to struggle through the COVID-19 pandemic. I have not yet lost any close friends or relatives to the disease, I have remained gainfully employed throughout the turmoil, and only a few people in my inner circle have been infected by SARS-CoV-2. But I, like many, have been living with the indirect consequences of the pandemic, including social isolation, chronic anxiety, and the difficulties of navigating things such as holidays, school disruptions, and caring for older relatives. In the past 22 months, SARS-CoV-2 has infected hundreds of millions around the globe, killing more than 4.5 million as of this writing (in mid-September). But these numbers will likely be dwarfed by the number of people who face sustained battles with mental health issues sparked or exacerbated by the pandemic.

Quantifying the psychological damage wrought by COVID-19 is tough to do. And the trauma is almost sure to mount in the coming months and years, perhaps spanning generations. The problem is certainly on the radars of neuroscientists and clinicians. Earlier this year, the American Psychological Association conducted a survey that found some alarming trends regarding pandemic-related stress in the US: 61 percent of respondents reported undesired weight changes, 67 percent reported disrupted sleep patterns, and 23 percent reported drinking more alcohol to cope with stress. This survey was conducted in February, as vaccines were coming online and there was widespread hope that humanity was on the brink of emerging from the pandemic’s darkest days. Now, of course, despite a dramatic drop in cases in the spring and early summer after the vaccine rollout, the country faces a spike in COVID-19 approaching the surge last winter, when thousands died daily and hundreds of thousands more were diagnosed. These grim statistics are likely just the tip of a dangerous iceberg, and people around the globe confront similar mental stressors.

ANDRZEJ KRAUZE

The forces driving what may become a widespread mental health crisis are multifarious. People everywhere are coping, successfully or otherwise, with the loss and illness of loved ones, economic hardship, and the uncertainty of political and social structures. As the world outside our windows seemed to turn upside down, measures put in place to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2 had many of us spending significant periods of time in social isolation. As The Scientist’s Catherine Offord wrote in our July/August 2020 issue, “The sort of isolation people are experiencing right now is unprecedented, and is compounded with other pressures, such as fear of disease and financial strain.”

Science, through the rapid and rigorous development of safe and effective vaccines, has provided us all with something of a respite from the worry and anxiety that are constituent parts of the pandemic. So too can it help address the mental reverberations of this global emergency. My sincere hope is that we follow the path of evidence-based thinking to conquer the anxiety, fear, and depression that the pandemic has spawned or worsened.

Biomedical researchers and clinicians will be studying and treating the mental health challenges that survivors of this pandemic experience, and nowhere are these efforts more important than in young people. After all, the human brain continues to develop and change through a person’s mid-20s. And for some children, teenagers, and young adults, a year or two of drastically altered routines, curtailed social interactions, and educational disruptions is likely to leave a lasting psychological mark.

Although the situation seems dire at this point, I have hope that neuroscience and mental healthcare will help point the way toward surmounting the difficulties that we are all facing down. Humans, with the aid of solid science and rational thinking, will eventually prevail over COVID-19, both in terms of our physical health and our mental wellbeing. 

Bob Grant

Editor-in-Chief

If you are experiencing anxiety or depression, or are having trouble coping with the stress of the pandemic, call 1-800-662-HELP (4357), or visit the website of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) at www.samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline.