Neuropathology and Neurological Manifestations in ME/CFS and Long COVID with focus on Post-Exertional Symptom Exacerbation: a Literature Review
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Many of the people that get infected with the Coronavirus develop long-lasting complaints and are diagnosed with Long COVID after the acute infection is gone. These complains can last several months or years and include fatigue, cognitive impairment, sleeping problems and post-exertional symptom exacerbation (PESE). Research shows that COVID-19 patients with an acute infection have abnormalities in their brain, which could potentially lead to long-lasting neurological problems and symptoms. However, although many researchers are trying to uncover the underlying mechanisms, Long COVID is still very new. The underlying mechanisms causing and maintaining the disease are therefore unclear. A large group of Long COVID patients resembles patients with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) in terms of symptoms and, in many cases, the viral trigger of the disease. A core symptom of ME/CFS is PESE, which is uncommon in other fatiguing illnesses, but frequently seen in Long COVID patients. PESE involves an abnormal worsening of symptoms and cognitive and physical functions after any type of normal activity. Because of the large symptom overlap and lack of knowledge regarding PESE, underlying brain-mechanisms associated with Long COVID and ME/CFS in general as well as after physical exertion were investigated. The findings of this review indicate that ME/CFS is associated with several abnormalities in the brain which are also proposed to be present in Long COVID patients. Such abnormalities include inflammation of the brain, shrinkage of the brain and less blood flow to the brain. After physical exertion, these abnormalities might be exacerbated in ME/CFS patients. This results in a brain that needs to work harder than the healthy brain to complete a task. It is demonstrated by increased brain activity in several brain regions after physical exertion and general symptom exacerbation. Since the two diseases seem to have a large overlap in symptoms and underlying brain-mechanisms, this finding might apply to patients with long COVID as well. Importantly, Long COVID seems to consist of different subgroups of which a large part fulfills the criteria for ME/CFS. Treatment and therapy for ME/CFS patients is therefore likely transferable to this subgroup of Long COVID patients, with explicit attention towards the PESE phenomenon. More research is needed to uncover the underlying mechanisms as well as correct treatment approach of these diseases. Future research should take subgroups of Long COVID into account.