One of the many unknowns about the still-novel coronavirus is how a classification of symptoms generally known as "brain fog" develops from COVID-19 infection.

Dr. William Hu, associate professor and chief of cognitive neurology at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy, and Aging Research, is now leading a study to try and unleash clues that can point toward effective treatment of these particular side effects.

Brain fog, he said, is an umbrella term that can simply mean mental sluggishness consistent with flulike symptoms, or having to take a longer time to complete certain tasks, or more gravely, memory issues which may include forgetting conversations and details.

And the troubling thing is that researchers don't yet seem to know why any of that happens, though Hu said some believe there could be a component of the SARS-CoV-2 virus itself that causes brain injury.

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"A more likely scenario is there's some sort of long-term inflammatory change, and we're starting to see some of these changes on the MRIs, but we still don't know what these things are," Hu said.

The Rutgers study, which began all the way back at the end of the pandemic's first wave last spring, is collecting the spinal fluid of patients in order to examine the fluid's inflammatory cells, which according to Hu are likely the same ones that touch the brain.

It is in this way that researchers consider this "fog" a type of brain injury.

"We think about the brain as having a reserve tank, and so if this is some sort of brain injury, then it takes a little bit more out of your reserve tank," Hu said.

About half of those who enrolled in the study reported a complaint relating to thinking or memory, and Rutgers continues to follow about 100 people to monitor potential changes.

If complaints lessen, a patient then "graduates" from the program, according to Hu.

"Fortunately, we have not seen a whole lot of people whose symptoms get worse over time, but even when they don't get worse, they're still very disabling," he said.

There is a "theoretical concern" that COVID-caused cognitive issues could be a forerunner of early-onset Alzheimer's disease, which is why much of the study is focusing on patients in their 40s and 50s.

But Hu said age is only a slight disposition. Those people might still need to be observed for 10 to 15 years, and he has seen even those in their 20s and 30s complain of brain fog.

To start arriving at some more concrete conclusions, Hu said even more New Jerseyans with lingering COVID problems need to get involved.

"I think we're really breaking some new ground here, but the only way that we can do this is because people are volunteering to be part of the study, even when they don't feel well, even when they have memory issues," he said.

Anyone interested can sign up by emailing memory411@rutgers.edu.

Patrick Lavery is New Jersey 101.5's afternoon news anchor. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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