Excerpt of Interview with Dr. Dong Yuhong, Virologist and Chief Scientist of a Biotechnology Firm in Europe.
One of the most common side effects of COVID-19 is neurological and psychiatric symptoms. A few large scale studies have discovered that COVID-19 infection can increase the risk of dementia, Alzheimers’ and Parkinson’s diseases. But there are ways to protect your brain.
COVID-19 Can Increase the Risk of Dementia by 69 Percent
In August 2022, The Lancet Psychiatry published a study on the neuropsychiatric sequelae caused by COVID-19. The study drew health records of more than 1 million people and showed that six months after the infection, symptoms of dementia went up by 33 percent .
The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease recently also published a study on the association of COVID-19 with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, the most common type of dementia. The researchers used the TriNetX Analytics Platform to access the health records of over 95 million patients of inpatient and outpatient visits from 68 healthcare organizations in the United States. Patients were from a diverse range of backgrounds―geographic, age, race/ethnicity, socioeconomics, and health condition. 
The researchers followed 6,245,282 adults (age ≥65 years) who visited healthcare professionals between February 2020 and May 2021 who had no prior diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease and followed them for 360 days.
During the one year follow up period of the study, most of the people should be vaccinated. However this piece of information has not been clearly reported.
Patients were divided into two groups, one group was infected with COVID-19, and the other group was not infected.
The study used a 1-to-1 matching method, where a COVID-19 patient was paired up with a non-COVID-19 patient of similar characteristics, such as age, race/ethnicity, health condition, occupational exposure, etc.
After the match, there were 410,478 valid cases in each group, with a mean age of 73.7 years.
The results showed that compared to non-COVID-19 patients, COVID-19 patients had a 69 percent increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease within 360 days of diagnosis. For those who were 85 years or older, the risk increased by 89 percent.
Both findings from The Lancet Psychiatry and Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease came from large-scale studies done by reputable researchers. They used comparable methods that generated similar results. The main finding is that the risk of developing neuropsychiatric diseases is higher in older patients who were tracked for an extended period of time. This is pathogenically plausible.
This shows that COVID-19’s related damage to the brain is an issue that should not be ignored.
COVID-19 Also Increases the Risk of Developing Parkinson’s Disease
In neurodegenerative diseases, neuronal death occurs in different parts of the brain causing diseases. For example, lesions in the hippocampus can cause memory loss and symptoms of dementia; in the nigrostriatal, Parkinson’s disease; and in the nerve cells which are responsible for movement, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
Frontiers in Neurology published a study in June 2022 indicating COVID-19 infection not only increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease but also the risk of Parkinson’s disease. 
The study used electronic health records of 2,972,192 people, covering about half of the Danish population who were tested for COVID-19 in hospitals between February 2020 and November 2021. The researchers classified the patients according to inpatient/outpatient status, age, gender, and comorbidities to ensure the comparability of the results.
Results showed that the outpatient group who tested positive for COVID-19 had a greater risk of developing neurodegenerative and cerebrovascular diseases compared to those who tested negative:
- Alzheimer’s disease – 3.5 times;
- Parkinson’s disease – 2.6 times;
- Ischemic stroke – 2.7 times;
- Cerebral hemorrhage – 4.8 times.
The Danish study showed that COVID-19 can cause neurodegenerative and cerebrovascular diseases on a large scale.
How COVID-19 Damages the Brain
Evidence suggests COVID-19 infection invades the brain in three ways and through multiple mechanisms.
Covid-19 attacks the brain in three ways:
- The virus enters the olfactory mucosa of the brain through the nasal cavity and olfactory nerve.
- The virus directly breaks through the blood-brain barrier via brain vessel epithelium cells.
- “Trojan horse method”—the virus first invades immune cells and then breaks through the blood-brain barrier through the immune cells.
Two articles published in Nature (July 2021) and Science (January 2022) suggest COVID-19 causes brain cell damage, directly and indirectly, through various mechanisms: attack brain cells directly; invade cerebral blood vessels; reduce blood flow causing ischemia and hypoxia; setting off the immune system to damage brain cells; brain inflammation; mitochondrial damage; lipid metabolism disorders; inhibition of autophagy (the ability of nerve cells to dispose of waste).  
In June 2022, Neural Regeneration Research revealed another mechanism leading to neurological damage to the brain. 
COVID-19 causes the viral receptor ACE-2 to down-regulate, resulting in the over-activation of the “renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system” (ie, RAAS, a hormonal system that regulates body fluid and electrolyte balance, thus playing a decisive role in blood pressure). The release of pro-inflammatory molecules develops into a cytokine storm that further exacerbates neuroinflammation, synaptic loss, damage to the protective coating of the nerve cells (demyelination), and actions of neurological compounds that can kill the nerve cells (excitotoxicity).
This mechanism causes damage to the structure of the nerve cells, myelin sheath, and peripheral nerves, and cell death (necrosis), which in turn will lead to neurological sequelae, including dementia and Parkinson’s disease.
COVID-19 Infection Might Not Cause Neurological Disorders
These studies indicate that not all COVID-19 patients experience neurological disorders, although the risk does exist.
COVID-19 can cause damage to the brain, but the nerve cells and the human body have self-healing mechanisms.
Infection from COVID-19 is just one of the causes of neurological disorders. The body’s ability to heal itself is the fundamental factor that can restore our health. Lifestyle changes, such as doing meditation or other ways of boosting autophagy can protect the brain’s ability to repair and regenerate, thereby reducing the chances of developing neurological diseases.
For some others, walking a spiritual path can also affect the mind in a positive way, thus protecting the brain.
Kindness Can Protect Brain Cells
In the field of psychology, kindness, compassion, altruism, generosity, empathy, and prosocial behavior (intent to help others) are usually grouped as positive psychology. Scientists define compassion or kindness as the “sensitivity to the distress of others with a commitment to try and do something about it.” 
In the eyes of scientists, kindness involves not only being sensitive to others’ sufferings but also the need to respond constructively in such situations—kindness requires action, even if it’s just a few words of comfort.
So from the scientific point of view, does kindness have an impact on one’s physical health?
- The kindness of the medical staff is conducive to the recovery of the patient’s condition
In 1995, The Lancet published a study from the University of Toronto health system. The researchers studied 133 homeless adults who often visited an inner-city emergency department. The patients’ main symptoms were physical pain, confusion, and headache. 
The patients were randomly assigned to two groups. One group received routine care; the other group received kind and compassionate care—that is, in addition to routine medical care, trained healthcare workers followed specific standards of compassionate care, and treated patients with more respect and patience.
Results showed that kind and compassionate care significantly reduced the average number of visits per month and reduced the number of monthly return visits by about one-third.
The study indicates that compassionate care of patients results in significantly fewer relapses and revisits, along with faster and more complete recovery. This is an intuitive statistic that reflects the healing power of “kindness.”
- Teaching children to be kind is beneficial to them and their parents
Are there benefits to being kind to others? Researchers at the University of Texas Center for BrainHealth conducted a study with an inspiring outcome.
During the COVID-19 pandemic from 2020 to 2021, 38 mothers participated in a 4-week online, self-paced curriculum in kindness. The mothers were required to practice and demonstrate to their children how to express kindness, and help them develop good behaviors.
Before and after the kindness curriculum, the mothers completed questionnaires on their resilience level and reported the child’s empathy prosocial behaviors.
The researchers discovered that after completing the curriculum on teaching kindness to their children, the mothers showed greater endurance, and more resilience in the face of adversity, trauma, and other stressors. The children’s level of empathy improved significantly, and they were kinder and more understanding. 
The study revealed that in the process of demonstrating and teaching kindness to the children, the children’s empathy level improved, and the parents also benefited.
- There are “kind molecules” in the human body to enhance immunity and ease brain damage
Many people think that kindness is merely a type of behavior. In fact, kindness has its corresponding material component in the human body. Scientific research has found that kindness can have positive effects on the brain and the physical body. For example:
- Activity in the posterior superior temporal cortex of the brain in kind and prosocial individuals is more active.
- Doing good deeds causes the body to release oxytocin and endorphins, and create new neural connections.
- Prosocial people have higher levels of antiviral gene expression of their immune cells.
Other studies have found that a kind attitude corresponds to the “oxytocin” molecules in the body.
An article in the Pharmacological Reviews (October 2020) showed that oxytocin is naturally produced in the human body and can be called a “good molecule.” 
Oxytocin is generally produced in the hypothalamus and released by the pituitary gland. It plays a role in childbirth, reproduction, and social bonding.
A person’s oxytocin level increases while in a state of kindness. Oxytocin enhances the body’s immunity, increases anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, and improves the body’s ability to fight viral infections. In addition, oxytocin can reduce and alleviate brain damage and maintain the brain’s self-healing ability.
A 2011 study published in Psychoneuroendocrinology monitored oxytocin levels and the number of immune cells, called helper T cells, in 71 HIV-infected women. Stress usually reduces the number of helper T cells. The study showed women with a high level of oxytocin had more immune cells even while under considerable stress, and the immune system became “braver” under elevated stress. 
Performing Good Deeds Can Help Us Navigate Through the COVID-19 Pandemic
After reviewing the above studies, we can see that kindness can increase our resilience, help us recover from neuropsychiatric sequelae, and boost our immunity. This in turn will help us overcome COVID-19 and navigate the last stage of the pandemic.
Other American psychologists hold similar views.
In August 2021, Anxiety, Stress & Coping published a paper co-authored by scholars from the University of California, Los Angeles, and Stanford University. Their research showed that practicing compassion and doing good deeds foster a sense of social belonging, which can help people reduce anxiety, stress, and depression, and help us cope with the pandemic and look to the future. 
From a social perspective, kindness builds trust among people, reduces anxiety, and creates a positive cycle.
From an energy perspective, the theory that kindness helps people improve their health also makes sense.
According to American psychiatrist, David R. Hawkins, people in different spiritual realms possess different energy levels which manifest through the human body. 
When people hold different types of thoughts, it is equivalent to giving different levels of energy to the body, including the brain. It acts like a light bulb―if you give it 60 watts of power, it emits 60 watts of light; and if you give it 100 watts of power, it emits 100 watts of light.
Kind people tend to have higher energy (or consciousness) levels. If energy is beneficial to the body, it is called positive energy; if energy has a counteracting effect on human health, it is called negative energy.
Acceptance, reason, and love correspond to positive energy levels that are beneficial to our health.
Performing good deeds can manifest in many different ways in our lives.
When we see behaviors that are detrimental to public health and our well-being, we should stand up and speak up. This is another form of being kind.
 Lancet Psychiatry
Other references – https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2022/08/19/long-covid-brain-effects/
 Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease
 Frontiers in Neurology
 Neural Regeneration Research
 Compassion and the science of kindness: Harvard Davis Lecture 2015 (British Journal of General Practice)
 A randomized trial of compassionate care for the homeless in an emergency department (Lancet May 1995)
 Parenting With a Kind Mind: Exploring Kindness as a Potentiator for Enhanced Brain Health
 Pharmacological Review – Is Oxytocin “Nature’s Medicine”?
 Anxiety, Stress & Coping
 David R. Hawkins
Other references –
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