New Research: Some COVID Patients Are Like Turtles

Their unconscious brains behave in similar ways
By Newser Editors,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 8, 2022 5:51 PM CST
New Research: Some COVID Patients Are Like Turtles
Stock photo of a painted turtle.   (Getty Images / PaulReevesPhotography)

In the sea of COVID-related studies to emerge over the last couple years comes a particularly unusual one that compares some COVID patients to painted turtles. As the New York Times reports, the study examines a "puzzling phenomenon" that's been observed among COVID patients who had to be put on ventilators. When doctors decided the patients could come off the machines, they cut their anesthesia and removed them from the ventilators. The expectation was that they'd wake up shortly thereafter. Except they didn't. "The time courses were absurd," neurologist Nicholas Schiff at Weill Cornell Medicine tells the Times.

The process took several weeks in many cases, but once they did wake up, they were typically fully conscious and hadn't suffered brain damage. Schiff has a theory as to why, and yes, it involves painted turtles. Schiff and co-author Dr. Emery Brown on Monday published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that suggests an unconscious COVID patient's brain behaves much like that of the freshwater turtles, which a press release notes can spend up to five months under ice without oxygen.

The turtles' neurons transition into a months-long quiet state—in part thanks to a chemical in their brains called GABA—and the men believe COVID and anesthesia drugs (which are akin to GABA) might do the same thing to the human brain. The potentially significant implication: If that's true, it might be possible to figure out how to force humans into this state as a way of avoiding brain damage. (Read more medical study stories.)

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