Long Covid: UCL leads £8m studies into treatments and diagnosis

University College London

UCL researchers are leading the largest clinical trial on long Covid to date, involving over 4,500 people, as well as a study seeking to understand and treat the cognitive impairment associated with the condition, commonly known as brain fog.

a person in surgical clothing looks at an MRI scan

The two studies have received £8 million in government funding through the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), out of a total of £19.6 million awarded to 15 projects to help better understand long Covid, improve diagnosis and find new treatments.

The STIMULATE-ICP (Symptoms, trajectory, inequalities and management: understanding long COVID to address and transform existing integrated care pathways) study, led by UCL alongside University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (UCLH), will recruit more than 4,500 people with the condition and test the effectiveness of existing drugs to treat long Covid by measuring the effects of three months’ treatment, including on people’s symptoms, mental health and outcomes such as returning to work.

The study, which has received £6.8 million from NIHR, will also assess the use of MRI scans to help diagnose potential organ damage, as well as enhanced rehabilitation through an app to track people’s symptoms.

Chief investigator Professor Amitava Banerjee (UCL Institute of Health Informatics) said: “Individuals with long Covid have long been asking for recognition, research and rehabilitation. In our two-year study across six clinical sites around England, we will be working with patients, health professionals, scientists across different disciplines, as well as industry partners, to test and evaluate a new ‘integrated care’ pathway from diagnosis to rehabilitation, and potential drug treatments in the largest trial to-date.

“We will also be trying to improve inequalities in access to care and investigating how long COVID compares with other long-term conditions in terms of use of healthcare and burden of disease, which will help to plan services.”

The CICERO (Cognitive Impairment in long Covid: PhEnotyping and RehabilitatiOn) project, led by Professor Dennis Chan (UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience) and awarded £1.2 million from NIHR, will first determine which elements of brain function are most affected in people with long Covid, using MRI scanning to identify affected brain networks.

The researchers will then develop and test a new rehabilitation strategy to help people recover from the cognitive aspects of long COVID and return to normal life and working ability. This will support production of a freely available COVID-19 Cognitive Recovery Guide on how best to offer the new rehabilitation approach depending on the patient’s symptoms.

Chief investigator Professor Chan said: “Cognitive impairment, referred to informally as ‘brain fog’, is a major component of long Covid that compromises people’s daily activities and ability to return to work. The aim of this study is twofold; first, to understand better the nature of this ‘cognitive Covid’ in terms of the cognitive functions affected and the associated brain imaging changes, and second, to test whether neuropsychological rehabilitation can improve people’s outcomes.

“If this study is successful we will not only understand much better the way in which Covid affects the brain but also provide NHS services with new tools to help people recover from their cognitive difficulties.”

Two other NIHR-funded long Covid studies, announced earlier this year, are also led by researchers at UCL. A £9.6 million study led by Professor Nishi Chaturvedi (MRC Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing at UCL) is using data from 60,000 people over three years to help define what Long Covid is and improve diagnosis. The CLoCk study, led by Professor Sir Terence Stephenson (UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health) aims to improve understanding of long Covid in 11- to -17-year-olds.

Health and Social Care Secretary, Sajid Javid, said: “Long Covid can have serious and debilitating long term effects for thousands of people across the UK, which can make daily life extremely challenging.

“This new research is absolutely essential to improve diagnosis and treatments and will be life-changing for those who are battling long-term symptoms of the virus.”

Credit: iStock.

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