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Nervous system of healthy young people impacted by Covid-19

By Isabel Shaw

09 Aug 2021

The nervous systems of healthy young people who contract Covid-19 appear to be altered by the virus, new research has found.  

The research, published in The Journal of Physiology this month (1 August), discovered that healthy young people diagnosed with Covid-19 — regardless of the severity of their symptoms — have problems with their nervous system when compared with people who have not caught the virus.  

The study looked into the impact on the cardiovascular system, including lung function, exercise capacity, vascular function and neural cardiovascular control, to try and establish what happens to the body following a Covid diagnosis, and therefore the potential long-term consequences of the virus.  

Young people’s fight-or-flight responses seemed to be most affected and seemed to become either overactive or underactive after catching Covid

Researchers said if this impact was prolonged, then it could potentially disrupt or affect other processes within the body.  

The researchers found that young people who had Covid had an elevated resting sympathetic activity — They also showed suppressed sympathetic nerve activity — part of the nervous system that increases heart rate and blood pressure —and pain perception compared with those who had never had Covid — but a similar heart rate and blood pressure, compared with control subjects. 

They also showed suppressed sympathetic nerve activity and pain perception compared with those who had never had Covid-19. 

The study said: ‘While the involvement of the autonomic nervous system in certain disease states is well-established, its role in the propagation of and recovery from SARS-CoV-2 is complex and relatively unknown.  

‘Here, we show for the first time that young and otherwise healthy individuals who have recently been diagnosed with SARS-CoV-2 may have reductions in autonomic function, as supported by higher resting sympathetic activity and cardiovascular responses to orthostasis and reduced reactivity responses to painful stress compared with healthy controls.’ 

However, the researchers noted that the study was limited in scope due to its cross-sectional nature, as the subjects’ nervous system activity was not recorded prior to them having Covid. The authors also called for more research into the underlying mechanisms behind the ‘observed disruptions’.  

Abigail Stickford, senior author, said: ‘Through our collaborative project, we have been following this cohort of Covid-19 subjects for six months following their positive test results.  

‘This work was representative of short-term data, so the next steps for us are to wrap up data collection and interpret how the subjects have changed over this time.’ 

It comes after, the ​​NHS announced in June that it was setting up specialist services for children and young people dealing with lingering Covid symptoms – otherwise known as long Covid – after emerging evidence suggested the issue was especially prevalent among younger people.  

Around 34,000 children in the UK are thought to be experiencing long Covid symptoms, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). 

The 15 new paediatric hubs will draw together experts on common symptoms, such as respiratory problems and fatigue, who can directly treat youngsters, advise family doctors or others caring for them or refer them to other specialist services and clinics. 

This comes as NHS England instructed practices to begin vaccinating eligible children against Covid.  

Last month, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) gave the green light to vaccinate children aged 12-15 deemed at ‘increased risk of serious Covid-19 disease’. 

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