Study reveals root cause of long-term COVID symptoms

Researchers put clues together to find the virus actually alters how cells function in some people

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(DENVER) — As COVID case numbers continue to climb, doctors are seeing more patients struggle with a wide range of debilitating and potentially dangerous symptoms several months after contracting the virus. Now, a new study by researchers at National Jewish Health is shedding light on the cause behind these long-term symptoms that will help experts develop treatments. 

“There was no clear connection among those experiencing post-COVID syndrome. We see patients who are young and old, those with mild and severe cases of COVID and those who are active and healthy as well as some with pre-existing conditions,” said Irina Petrache, MD, chief of the Division of Pulmonary at National Jewish Health and co-author of the study. “For most, initial testing of their heart and lungs was normal, so we looked deeper to the cellular level.”

To do this, researchers conducted exercise testing in the Center for Post-COVID Care and Recovery, monitoring hundreds of data points as patients became fatigued on an exercise bike. They concluded that mitochondria – organelles in cells that are responsible for generating energy – did not function properly in patients with post-COVID syndrome. While the test revealed this dysfunction in muscle tissue, researchers believe this same process is also related to symptoms originating in the pulmonary and neurological systems.

“There are a lot of people out there struggling with life-altering COVID symptoms and we are confident that this collaborative research will help find answers for them,” Petrache said. “But the best way to avoid these complications continues to be prevention. As we see new waves of disease and reinfection with different versions of the virus, we have to do everything we can to prevent the disease by wearing masks and getting vaccinated.”


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Tod Olin, MD, conducts exercise testing with Joanna Zeiger, who suffers from long-term symptoms of COVID-19. Through this testing, researchers have found that the virus actually hinders cell function in those who experience post-COVID syndrome.

Joanna Zeiger walks her dog near her home in Boulder, Co. Five months after contracting COVID-19, Joanna still struggles with debilitating physical and mental symptoms that make daily life difficult and keep her from returning to her active lifestyle.

Irina Petrache, MD, co-led a study at National Jewish Health to better understand why some people continue to suffer life-altering symptoms of COVID-19 months after contracting the virus. Through extensive testing, researchers found that the virus actually alters cell function in these patients, a discovery they hope will lead to treatments.

Joanna Zeiger still struggles with brain fog and memory issues five months after having COVID-19, which affects her life both at work and at home. Researchers at National Jewish Health are working to unravel the mysteries of long-term COVID symptoms and, in a new study, found the virus actually hinders cell function in some people.

Researchers at the National Jewish Health Center for Post-COVID Care and Recovery conduct exercise testing with Joanna Zeiger, who continues to suffer with heart rate fluctuations, extreme fatigue and brain fog five months after contracting COVID-19.

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