COVID-19 on the Brain

Portland State senior instructor Bill Griesar on how neuroscience can help us understand the novel coronavirus

By Gabriel Granillo April 28, 2020

"Reaching out to others, checking in, listening to what people say, asking if you can do anything (get groceries, for example)—and asking for help or assistance yourself if you need it are all important steps we can take," says Bill Griesar, senior instructor in the department of psychology at Portland State University. He talks virtual communication, touch, and what neuroscience can tell us about the impacts of COVID-19 in this extended Q&A. 

So much about the novel coronavirus is unknown. Its far-reaching impacts on education, public health, and the economy have yet to truly be analyzed—partly because the numbers and statistics simply don't exist yet.

One area of interest for Bill Griesar is on the brain. He’s a senior instructor in the department of psychology at Portland State University and a neuroscience coordinator with NW Noggin, a volunteer-driven, nonprofit neuroscience outreach group based in Portland. To gain a better understanding of how COVID-19 has shaped social behavior and mental healthPortland Monthly reached out to Griesar. In this extended Q&A, Griesar (via email) talks about virtual communication, touch, and how neuroscience can help us understand the impacts of COVID-19. 

Gabriel Granillo, Portland Monthly: With regard to coronavirus and stay-at-home orders from numerous governors across the US (including ours), many of us are facing prolonged periods of isolation and perhaps loneliness during these times. What do you think is important to understand, from a neurological standpoint, about the effect prolonged loneliness and isolation can have on the brain?

Bill Griesar: Interestingly we can be lonely in crowded public spaces, while some feel connected and supported even while physically isolated at home. Loneliness is a state of mind.

Most of us are supported and nurtured by direct social engagement, though for those experiencing social anxiety our regular classrooms, offices, and public spaces can also be isolating and stressful. And it’s what scientists term “reciprocal connections” that are so important for mental health. Relationships which involve both others caring for and doing things for you and you caring for and doing things for them are key to preventing loneliness

But regardless of the cause, loneliness is linked to poorer sleep, reduced immune function, more stress, depression, suicidal ideation, dementia, and an increased risk of early death. Fragmented sleep prevents the normal clearance of chemicals that build up in brains during the day, which may be one contributing mechanism.

What can you tell us about touch and its effect on brain function?

Touch is hugely important for social connection, particularly during development. It lowers stress and reduces reported feelings of social exclusion, particularly if that touch comes from someone you are close to already. Certain forms of touch increase the release of oxytocin, a hormone associated with lower stress, and more trust, well-being, and empathy. 

With this decrease in physical interactions, I think many have sought out other means of communication: Facebook Live, Zoom happy hours, etc. In your opinion, how much are these methods of communication helping? Do you see any shortfalls?

Reaching out to connect with others through whatever technology we have available is a good sign.

And for some, these can be effective substitutes for maintaining important reciprocal social connections. Helping someone, and receiving support, can take place over a Zoom call or through a multiplayer online video game. Many young people do this all the time, and are more used to virtually connecting through smartphones and text :)

Yet for others, losing direct, in-person access to friends, colleagues, and community is difficult—particularly over time, as the novelty of Zoom, for example, wears off. And for some experiencing loneliness at home, required work or school offered important opportunities to overcome isolation and benefit from socially engaging with other people.

Also not everyone has the resources available to access this technology, which limits their options. The internet, clearly, is now an essential public service—and entrusting it to private, for-profit companies might not be the best strategy for social inclusion.

I’m curious to know if the brain, because we’re not physically there and can’t rely on body language as we might during physical interactions, has to work harder during these virtual meet-ups. Do you think there’s any truth or science to that? What ways can we communicate more effectively? 

The visual connections (through Zoom, FaceTime, etc.) do let you see people’s faces, expressions, and some body language (if their video is switched on). It’s not the same as being present in public, but it’s better than an email! And there can be substantial benefits of this technology for some who previously struggled with affordable transportation, long commutes, and/or the time commitment required to get places for work, classes, etc.

There isn’t much research, but I suspect that for some it’s a poor substitute for face-to-face interactions, especially for those who primarily engaged offline. It’s not going to work for kindergarten classrooms, or in other settings where direct observation and response to the behavior of others are key to learning. And if you’re lonely, and don’t have a strong connection to those you’re meeting on Zoom, these experiences may provoke even more anxiety, loneliness, social exclusion, and stress.

Reaching out to others, checking in, listening to what people say, asking if you can do anything (get groceries, for example)—and asking for help or assistance yourself if you need it are all important steps we can take. Checking accurate sources of information (the World Health Organization, for example, or the CDC) and avoiding demonstrably inaccurate and misleading outlets (the White HouseFOX News) can better convey the reality of our circumstances and what steps we might take to make things better.

Some of us are isolated together, living with spouses, roommates, siblings, parents, etc. I’m curious to know if that, too, has an effect on brain function.  

So much depends on the nature of these relationships, as people can be lonely even in a crowded apartment. I understand that incidents of domestic violence and abuse are reportedly on the rise because some may be forced to spend time with unsafe partners or roommates. 

But for some, there is opportunity—and perhaps more time—to forge closer and more reciprocal relationships, which can help address loneliness. Doing things together with roommates, or as a family, might be more doable under these stay at home orders than before. Without commute times, it might be possible to get sleep better aligned with our circadian clocks, which can improve so many aspects of our mental and physical health.

I was reading about a study that found the novel coronavirus had neurological manifestations in some hospitalized patients.   

My students and I have been talking about this in our online courses at Portland State University. We’re studying perception, and this week are examining smell and taste.
One of the reported symptoms of COVID-19 is a loss of smell (known as anosmia), and it’s possible that cells in the nasal cavity can become infected. New research finds that certain cell types, including the ciliated cells that help sweep particles and pathogens out of the nose (and other parts of the respiratory tract) express the ACE2 receptor that lets the virus in.
In addition, the olfactory receptors that respond to chemicals we can detect (“odorants") send their wire-like projections (“axons”) directly through holes in our skull (through the sieve-like “cribriform plate”; part of the ethmoid bone). These axons connect (“synapse") with clumps of neurons beneath our frontal lobes known as the olfactory bulbs. Olfactory bulb cells also express the ACE2 receptor. Numerous reports of neurological complications in COVID-19 patients may relate to this spread of the virus into the brain through the nose.
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