We spoke to several DMCBH researchers about the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had with respect to our brains, our understanding of sex and gender analysis in science and ethical considerations. This story was part of our 2020/2021 annual report, which can be found here.
Dr. Teresa Liu Ambrose on how the pandemic has impacted our brain:
The pandemic has affected our brain in many ways, including our mood and memory. People say they can’t remember events as well anymore, or that one day blends into the next. This is partly because we’re better able to remember events tied to our senses, such as smell and emotions. It is also harder to think clearly when we are in constant stress or anxiety. For many of us, the pandemic meant staying at home, reducing our social interactions, and not engaging in activities that we normally enjoy and are important to our wellbeing. These changes can impact our thinking abilities, and contribute to the feeling of being in a brain fog. We also know that the pandemic has impacted the mental health of many Canadians. Evidence shows that poor mental health is associated with reduced cognitive abilities. Those who have contracted the COVID-19 virus may also be at a greater risk for cognitive and mood outcomes because of the possible direct effect of COVID-19 infection on the brain.
With colleagues from the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging, my team is studying the intermediate and long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the COVID-19 virus on the brain and cognition. Using data collected prior to, during, and after the COVID-19 pandemic by the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging, we aim to assess the impact of the pandemic on cognitive trajectories and outcomes.
To better understand the impact of the COVID-19 virus on the brain and cognition, we are comparing brain structure, brain function, and cognitive performance of adults with COVID-19 to those who tested negative or had no symptoms. Early evidence is showing that silent strokes might be caused by the virus, which in turn could lead to a higher risk of developing dementia.
Dr. Teresa Liu-Ambrose is Director of the Aging, Mobility and Cognitive Health Lab at UBC.
Dr. Liisa Galea on what the pandemic has taught us about the importance of studying sex and gender in science:
Since the early days of the pandemic, there were clues that sex and gender mattered for COVID-19 outcomes, with research suggesting that men were more likely to die from the virus than women. This could be because there are more ACE2 receptors in males which leads to a greater antibody response. More recently, we have seen that vaccine uptake in British Columbia is different based on sex, and we know that pregnant people were left out of clinical trials which leaves many questions unanswered. If we pay more attention to sex and gender-based analyses and women’s health questions, we’d be further ahead in our treatments and solutions for COVID-19. Scientists and members of the public shouldn’t be afraid of sex and gender differences; rather, we should embrace the variability and richness of information it provides us and harness it to address health challenges like the pandemic.
Dr. Galea is a sex and gender champion and leader of the Women’s Health Research Cluster at UBC.
Dr. Judy Illes on the ethics of vaccine certifications:
We should be looking at vaccine certifications as a matter of public health, not using the term passport which refers to government-issued documents for travelling between countries. In other words, we should be thinking about certifications in the same way we do for other diseases, such as how children are required to have certain vaccinations before attending school. The main concern is we need to keep people safe. Good public health messaging is vital. While a person has the personal right to oppose a vaccine, society holds the responsibility to protect the most people. With that said, systems that accommodate people who can’t receive vaccines, either because of health issues or challenges with access, are ethically imperative.
Dr. Judy Illes is a UBC Distinguished University Scholar and the Director of Neuroethics Canada.