Dynamic white matter changes in recovered COVID-19 patients: a two-year follow-up study

Theranostics. 2023 Jan 1;13(2):724-735. doi: 10.7150/thno.79902. eCollection 2023.


Background and purpose: Long COVID with regard to the neurological system deserves more attention, as a surge of treated patients are being discharged from the hospital. As the dynamic changes in white matter after two years remain unknown, this characteristic was the focus of this study. Methods: We investigated 17 recovered COVID-19 patients at two years after discharge. Diffusion tensor imaging, neurite orientation dispersion and density imaging were performed to identify white matter integrity and changes from one to two years after discharge. Data for 13 revisited healthy controls were collected as a reference. Subscales of the Wechsler Intelligence scale were used to assess cognitive function. Repeated-measures ANOVA was used to detect longitudinal changes in 17 recovered COVID-19 patients and 13 healthy controls after one-year follow-up. Correlations between diffusion metrics, cognitive function, and other clinical characteristics (i.e., inflammatory factors) were also analyzed. Results: Longitudinal analysis showed the recovery trends of large-scale brain regions, with small-scale brain region deterioration from one year to two years after SARS-CoV-2 infection. However, persistent white matter abnormalities were noted at two years after discharge. Longitudinal changes of cognitive function showed no group difference. But cross-sectional cognitive difference between recovered COVID-19 patients and revisited HCs was detected. Inflammation levels in the acute stage correlated positively with white matter abnormalities and negatively with cognitive function. Moreover, the more abnormal the white matter was at two years, the greater was the cognitive deficit present. Conclusion: Recovered COVID-19 patients showed longitudinal recovery trends of white matter. But also had persistent white matter abnormalities at two years after discharge. Inflammation levels in the acute stage may be considered predictors of cognition and white matter integrity, and the white matter microstructure acts as a biomarker of cognitive function in recovered COVID-19 patients. These findings provide an objective basis for early clinical intervention.

Keywords: cognitive function; inflammation factors; recovered COVID-19 patients; two-year follow-up; white matter changes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • COVID-19*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Diffusion Tensor Imaging / methods
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Inflammation
  • Post-Acute COVID-19 Syndrome
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • White Matter* / diagnostic imaging