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Long COVID: understanding how COVID-19 affects the brains of children with persistent symptoms

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Children and young people may experience persistent symptoms after COVID-19 that affect their physical, mental or social wellbeing, interfering with their daily lives. Some estimates indicate up to one in 50 children infected with SARS-CoV-2 develop long COVID, while other studies suggest it could be as many as one in seven. [1,2] Dr Nathalie MacDermott of King’s College London is looking for brain changes in children with long COVID that could help provide clues into the underlying disease processes. Establishing how COVID-19 affects the brains of young people with this condition could enable earlier diagnosis and lead to new strategies to support their long-term recovery.

How are children’s lives affected now?

Although COVID-19 in children and young people is usually a short illness with few or no symptoms, some children continue to experience symptoms at least 12 weeks after infection with SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19).

“The most common symptoms described by children with long COVID are extreme tiredness, headache, loss of smell, and finding it hard to concentrate,” says Dr MacDermott.

But currently, it is unclear how the virus causes persistent symptoms in some children – and what the long-term consequences are for young people affected by long COVID. One possibility is that some symptoms may be caused by ongoing mild inflammation in the brain.

As long COVID is such a new illness, there are still a lot of unanswered questions,” says Dr MacDermott. “We urgently need to study children experiencing prolonged illness to gain a better understanding of the disease process, the likely long-term outcomes and find out how best to help them.”

How could this research help?

“We aim to find out if children and young people with long COVID have detectable brain changes that suggest they have or may have had, some mild inflammation in their brain – which could put them at risk of long-term neurological problems,” says Dr MacDermott.

The researchers will carry out brain scans on 80 children, aged 10 to 17 years, with moderate to severe long COVID – and then compare these with those from children with a severe inflammatory condition caused by COVID-19, and children who have either fully recovered from COVID-19 or never had the illness.

“We will determine if there are any changes in brain volume or structure in children and young people with long COVID,” says Dr MacDermott.

Establishing if children with long COVID have a loss of brain volume and small structural changes – similar to those seen in children with other conditions that cause inflammation of the brain and spinal cord – will provide important new insight into the underlying disease processes.

We hope our results will lead to new tests to identify children and young people with brain changes associated with long COVID – and new treatment strategies to give them the best possible long-term outcome.

Dr MacDermott


1. Molteni, E. Illness duration and symptom profile in symptomatic UK school-aged children tested for SARS-CoV-2. Lancet Child Adolesc Health. 2021;5(10):708-718. DOI: 10.1016/S2352-4642(21)00198-X

2. Stephenson T et al. Long COVID – the physical and mental health of children and non-hospitalised young people 3 months after SARS-CoV-2 infection; a national matched cohort study (The CLoCk) Study. Preprint from Research Square 2021; DOI: 10.21203/

Research table

Project details

Project Leader Dr Nathalie E MacDermott, PhD MRPCH
Location Department of Women and Children’s Health, King’s College London
Project Team Dr Ming Lim, PhD MRCP MRCPCH
Dr Jonathan O’Muircheartaigh, PhD
Dr Yael Hacohen, PhD MRCPCH
Other Locations Department of Paediatric Neurology, Evelina London Children’s Hospital, Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Trust
Department of Perinatal Imaging and Health, King’s College London
Department of Neuroinflammation, Institute of Neurology, University College London
Neuroimmunology Centre, Great Ormond Street NHS Trust
Grant Awarded
Grant Amount £99,753
Start Date
End Date
Duration 24 months
Grant Code (GN number) GN2925


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