CHARBONNEAU – Mysterious Long COVID: two theories

(Image: World Health Organization)

HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of Canadians suffer from Long COVID after contracting the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Two opposing theories have been advanced; one neurological and the other medical -both scientific.

The symptoms of Long COVID are debilitating. They include persistent fatigue, “brain fog” or difficulty concentrating or remembering things. They include non-specific ailments such as palpitations, dizziness, headache, insomnia, and lack of mood regulation. Sufferers complain of a “energy crash” after only mild exercise.

The neurological theory draws on the research of consciousness in a book I read recently: Being You by Neuroscientist Anil Seth. In it, Seth argues that consciousness is a product of matching expectations with perceptions.

Earlier theories of consciousness proposed a “theatre of the mind” in what we see, hear, and touch are presented to the mind as actors on stage and we simply observe them.

New neurological research demonstrates otherwise. We have expectations of the world that we match with what we perceive. Our minds not only actively create the world in which we live; it also affects the brain’s control of our bodies through hormones.

This explanation of consciousness is supported by psychiatrist Ralph Lewis, cognitive neurologist Matthew Burke and Ari Zaretsky, VP of education at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto in their recent article.

They support Seth’s insight in explaining the connection between infection of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and Long COVID:

“Neuroscientists now understand that the brain is essentially a prediction machine. To efficiently process a flood of incoming information, the brain makes predictions about what it thinks this information is going to tell it based on expectations and assumptions. Most of the time these are accurate guesses, but the cost of such an efficient system is that sometimes the brain gets it wrong. This is what creates the “magic” of optical illusions. . . (Globe and Mail, April 10, 2013).

Patients who suffer from debilitating symptoms are often told by doctors that their condition is psychosomatic: “all in their heads.”

Patients are understandably insulted by the “psychosomatic” diagnosis when their minds, their consciousness, are keys in understanding illness.

“We now understand that a wide range of symptoms can be produced by biologically based abnormalities in the function, rather than the structure, of the brain,” say Lewis et al, “You might think of this as a problem of “software” rather than “hardware.” Software, or functional, changes in the brain can have many real impacts on the body’s hormonal, metabolic and immune-system functioning [emphasis theirs].”

When we hear of a wide array of bewilderingly long-term symptoms that result from exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, we have expectations of what having Long COVID might feel like. Those messages get amplified by social media.

Just as it’s obvious that software can effect changes in hardware (think malware), so can the expectations of our minds effect changes in our biology.

A wide range of symptoms can be produced by biologically based abnormalities in the function, rather than the structure, of the brain.

When sufferers of Long COVID report symptoms, they are not “imagining” them. They are real and physical.

Our expectations shape the reality of our biology. There are a many ways in which our expectations effect changes in our bodies, including the placebo effect. In some Long COVID patients, such mechanisms could be at play.

Next week: a medical theory of Long COVID in which the structure of the brain is presented as the cause.

David Charbonneau is a retired TRU electronics instructor who hosts a blog at

About Mel Rothenburger (9634 Articles) is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

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