Ontario researchers seek 50,000 participants to study impact of COVID-19 on the brain

Researchers are hoping to find answers for health-care professionals and improve care for patients with COVID-19 worldwide by focusing on the impact of the disease, caused by the novel coronavirus, on the brain.

Adrian Owen, a cognitive neuroscience and imaging professor at Western University’s Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry, and Dr. Rick Swartz, a stroke neurologist and cognitive scientist from Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and the University of Toronto, are leading the study, which is currently seeking about 50,000 volunteers who received a confirmed positive diagnosis of the virus for what’s expected to be a one-year study available in English, French and Spanish.

According to the study’s website, there is “emerging evidence” suggesting COVID-19 can increase the risk of strokes in some cases and the disease has also “resulted in an unprecedented spike in intensive care unit admissions.” Previous research out of his own lab published in 2019 suggests that “nearly all patients are cognitively impaired at the time of ICU discharge” and that roughly half “have cognitive impairment years later.”

“As the number of recovered COVID-19 patients continues to climb, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that getting sent home from the ICU is not the end for these people. It’s just the beginning of their recovery.”


While over $1-billion has been allocated to fund COVID-19-related research projects in Canada since March, including vaccine development, researchers say “little work has been done on the potential neurological effects and longer-term impacts of the disease.”

“The problem is a bit like when governments were deciding to enter lockdown — timing is everything,” said Owen.

“We need to start collecting this data now. We can’t start looking at this issue in a year’s time because if there are cognitive impairments, and we know there will be, it’s going to be too late.”

The study will see participants complete a survey and games to test cognitive function at the start of the study, three months later, and then a year from the start of the study.

The team is hoping to answer a lot of questions: “Does (COVID-19) result in cognitive impairment? Is the burden different for those requiring hospitalization compared to those who can stay home? Are there age, sex, and medical risk factors that predict the virus’s effects on the brain?”

“We also need to understand whether COVID-19 patients are getting better or worse over time,” added Swartz.

“And is it only some patients? For example, is it only those who were ventilated or sedated?”

Researchers are looking for participants who are 18 years of age or older; can read and write in English, Spanish, or French; are able to use Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox and connect to the internet, and have been given a confirmed positive diagnosis of COVID-19 by local health authorities.

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