Coronavirus Briefing: Risks to the brain

This post first appeared on The New York Times on . You can read the original article here.

Covid-19 may cause tissue damage and loss of gray matter

This is the Coronavirus Briefing, an informed guide to the pandemic. Sign up here to get this newsletter in your inbox.

The New York Times

Covid-19 may cause greater loss of gray matter and tissue damage in the brain than naturally occurs in people who have not been infected with the virus, a large new study finds.

The study, published Monday in the journal Nature, involved 785 people aged 51 to 81 and was believed to be the first involving people who underwent brain scans both before they contracted Covid and then several months after. It found shrinkage and tissue damage primarily in brain areas related to the sense of smell; some of those areas are also involved in other functions.

With normal aging, people lose a tiny fraction of gray matter each year. For example, in regions related to memory, the typical annual loss is between 0.2 percent and 0.3 percent. But Covid patients in the study, most of whom did not become sick enough to require hospitalization, experienced between 0.2 percent and 2 percent additional gray-matter loss in different brain regions over the three years between scans.

“To me, this is pretty convincing evidence that something changes in brains of this overall group of people with Covid,” said Dr. Serena Spudich, the chief of neurological infections and global neurology at the Yale School of Medicine.

Other scientists can now build on these findings, she and others said. But, she cautioned: “To make a conclusion that this has some long-term clinical implications for the patients, I think, is a stretch. We don’t want to scare the public and have them think, ‘Oh, this is proof that everyone’s going to have brain damage and not be able to function.’”

Even as cases decline and more Americans are called back to the office, remote work will be an integral part of many people’s lives in the future — at least some of the time.

Some employees welcome hybrid work as a chance to rebalance their priorities. But working in isolation, especially for those who are new to an organization, can also make career advancement more difficult.

“For remote workers who want to get ahead, they can no longer rely on their boss seeing them sitting at their desk working, so they have to put their hands up in other ways,” said Corinne Purtill, a contributor to The Times who covers science and human behavior. “And that requires more effort, which is challenging at a time when everyone is burned out.”

I spoke with Corinne about advancing your career in the age of remote work.

What are the challenges of building your career while working remote?

Proximity bias is a real thing. The Society for Human Resource Management surveyed managers about remote work last year, and 42 percent admit they’ve overlooked remote workers for assignments or projects because they just plain forget about them. People forget what’s not right in front of them, particularly when they’re stressed out, which everyone has been for two years.

Even if you have a lot of motivation and desire to make connections and establish yourself, it can be really hard to know how to do that practically if you haven’t been able to observe workplace dynamics the way you can in a physical office. When you’re sitting at a desk, you can watch the way people talk to each other and get a sense of the relationships around you in a way that’s just tougher to do on Slack.

What can companies do to help?

Prithwiraj Choudhury, an associate professor at Harvard Business School who focuses on the changing geography of work, has studied this. He told me about three common practices at companies that have managed remote work successfully. They took the time to compile information and practices in handbooks that employees could consult. They paired remote workers with mentors outside their department so that they could speak frankly without worrying about how it affects team dynamics. And they created what he called the “virtual water cooler.”

What’s that?

Essentially, it’s scheduling short, informal video chats. Choudhury’s study looked at a firm that scheduled some interns to video chat with senior managers, others with other interns and others with no chats at all. The ones who got to have some informal face time with bosses got higher performance evaluations at the end of their internship and were more likely to get job offers afterward.

What is your best advice for remote workers who are trying to advance their careers?

Ask for people’s time. Just because your manager hasn’t set aside time with you doesn’t mean they don’t want to talk. Everyone is distracted these days. It’s OK to ask. Kyle Elliott, a career coach in California, put it like this: When you work remotely, and you want to be recognized, you have to make a conscious effort to remind the bosses that you exist.

If you have the option to go into the office sometimes, and you can get there, take it. It’s really helpful to see how things work behind the scenes and to understand people’s real-life personalities. It also offers useful information on how well your company does at managing remote workers. If way more decisions seem to get made by people who are meeting regularly in person, that’s a sign that this organization may not be fully committed to developing its remote talent.

Since March 11, 2020, when I left my office for the last time, I have been working fully remote. I find it difficult spending so much time alone in my apartment working on my laptop. In order to vary my environment, I alternate between my bedroom, my kitchen and my living room. Fortunately, since I live on the fifth floor, I can see all the way to the next avenue, over the trees and the slate roofs of the houses built in the 1930s. I have learned to tell time by the position of the sun as it moves across the sky and the shadows it casts on my walls. A few times, I have even seen a hawk (or some bird of prey) roosting on the tree behind my building and soaring over my block. Because of this pandemic, I have learned to intimately appreciate the nature I see through my windows that I had otherwise missed for the past 30 years.

—Joy Rallon, Queens, N.Y.

Let us know how you’re dealing with the pandemic. Send us a response here, and we may feature it in an upcoming newsletter.

Sign up here to get the briefing by email.

Email your thoughts to [email protected].