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17 June 2021

Research into the cognitive impact of COVID-19 on patients with and without sleep complaints

Pim Heckman speaks to us about the impact that receiving one of the three 2021 CANTAB Research Grant prizes will have on his research into clearing COVID-19 cognitive brain fog

I would like to start by thanking Cambridge Cognition for supporting the much-needed and highly relevant research into the negative (long-term) consequences of COVID-19 infection on cognitive brain function. I am both honored and excited to be part of this important investigation facilitated by Cambridge Cognition and the 2021 CANTAB Research Grant. In my daily work, I work as an assistant professor, currently starting my own lab at the Dept. Neuropsychology and Psychopharmacology (Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience, Maastricht University). I focus on elucidating molecular processes related to cognition enhancement, focusing on the role of sleep in cognition in particular. Especially, I focus on the molecular machinery driving negative changes in cognitive function as a result of sleep loss. Naturally, this work involves collaborating with other experts in the research areas of memory and sleep including Dr. Anke Sambeth, who is a collaborator on this current project.

What is the project about and why is this important?

Current times have been unprecedented due to the COVID-19 outbreak affecting large parts of the world and resulting in a global pandemic. Despite the rapid response of the medical field to battle the infections, it is becoming more and more clear that, even when treated and fully recovered from COVID-19, former patients experience residual complaints. Among other domains, these residual complaints relate to cognitive dysfunction expressed as deficits in episodic memory, working memory, and executive function; possibly through direct effects of the virus on the central nervous system. In addition, an increased prevalence of sleep disorders has been observed in 2020[1], manifesting itself through increased worry about the disease as well as through direct effects on sleep quality after COVID-19 recovery. We have shown on multiple occasions that loss of sleep can negatively affect cognitive functioning [2-4], especially memory that relies on hippocampal activity. In this same way, COVID-19 can, directly and indirectly, affect cognition in a negative manner. Therefore, in the current study, we aim to investigate the effect of COVID-19 on cognitive function in former COVID-19 patients with and without sleep complaints. Our aim is to map the triangular relationship between COVID-19, loss of sleep, and impaired cognitive function.

What do we expect?

Our hypothesis is that, if COVID-19 predominantly has an indirect negative effect through sleep loss, performance in especially ‘hippocampal tasks’ will negatively be affected, e.g. spatial memory, pattern separation, and verbal word learning. Thus, episodic and working memory will be impaired (Of note: working memory also requires a functional prefrontal cortex). If COVID-19 has a direct negative effect on the brain, other types of cognition will be affected as well, such as executive functioning or attention.

What CANTAB tests will we use?

Because our previous work showed impairments of sleep loss in the memory domain related to ‘hippocampal tasks’, thus paradigms for which the hippocampus is activated, the current project would be using the following hippocampus-dependent tasks from the CANTAB Connect battery: Delayed Matching to Sample (DMS); Paired Associates Learning (PAL); Pattern Recognition Memory (PRM); Spatial Working Memory (SWM) paradigm will also be administered to assess the efficacy between hippocampal and prefrontal regions.

Finally, to tap into executive functions and attention, we would like to administer the One Touch Stockings of Cambridge (OTS) and the Match to Sample Visual Search (MTS).

How important was funding from Cambridge Cognition for your work?

In general, the CANTAB cognitive battery can be considered leading in the field as it includes highly sensitive, precise, and objective measures of cognitive function, correlated to neural networks. The latter is important in light of the transition to the Research Domain Criteria approach to classifying mental illness. Funding from Cambridge Cognition is therefore absolutely crucial. First of all, due to the immediate societal and medical relevance of the subject being studied (i.e. effects COVID-19 infection on sleep and cognitive function). Second, because through this grant, Cambridge Cognition supports early career scientists establishing their own line of research. Finally, over 30 years, Cambridge Cognition has become the gold standard in cognitive assessment ensuring the highest quality data essential for moving the rapidly evolving field of COVID-19 research forward.     


1. Partinen M. (2021). Sleep research in 2020: COVID-19-related sleep disorders. The Lancet. Neurology, 20(1), 15–17. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1474-4422(20)30456-7
2. Heckman, P., Roig Kuhn, F., Meerlo, P., & Havekes, R. (2020). A brief period of sleep deprivation negatively impacts the acquisition, consolidation, and retrieval of object-location memories. Neurobiology of learning and memory, 175, 107326. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nlm.2020.107326
3. Heckman, P., Roig Kuhn, F., Raven, F., Bolsius, Y. G., Prickaerts, J., Meerlo, P., & Havekes, R. (2020). Phosphodiesterase inhibitors roflumilast and vardenafil prevent sleep deprivation-induced deficits in spatial pattern separation. Synapse (New York, N.Y.), 74(6), e22150. https://doi.org/10.1002/syn.22150
4. Raven, F., Heckman, P., Havekes, R., & Meerlo, P. (2020). Sleep deprivation-induced impairment of memory consolidation is not mediated by glucocorticoid stress hormones. Journal of sleep research, 29(5), e12972. https://doi.org/10.1111/jsr.12972

Tags : cantab | cognition | cognitive testing | cantab testimonial | cognitive science | cantab research grant | covid-19 | sleep | pal | prm | ots | mts | swm

Author portrait

Pim Heckman - Maastricht University