Researchers say COVID-19 has been linked to neurological complications in some patients, including fatal brain inflammation, stroke and nerve damage

By Claudia Harmata
July 09, 2020 04:16 PM
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University College London

The coronavirus could cause brain damage in some infected patients, say researchers.

On Wednesday, experts at the University College London published a new study showing that COVID-19 "is associated with neurological and neuropsychiatric illness" such as stroke, nerve damage and potentially fatal brain inflammation.

"We identified a higher than expected number of people with neurological conditions such as brain inflammation, which did not always correlate with the severity of respiratory symptoms," joint senior author Dr. Michael Zandi said in a press release, emphasizing that damage occurred even in patients that didn't show severe respiratory symptoms associated with COVID-19.

"We should be vigilant and look out for these complications in people who have had COVID-19," he added. "Whether we will see an epidemic on a large scale of brain damage linked to the pandemic — perhaps similar to the encephalitis lethargica outbreak in the 1920s and 1930s after the 1918 influenza pandemic — remains to be seen."

Researchers in the study examined 43 patients, aged 16 to 85, who were treated at University College London Hospitals for either confirmed or suspected coronavirus with a varied range of symptoms, from April to May.

Among these patients, researchers identified 10 cases of "temporary brain dysfunction" with delirium, as well as "12 cases of brain inflammation, eight cases of strokes, and eight others with nerve damage, mainly Guillain-Barré syndrome (which usually occurs after a respiratory or gastrointestinal infection)."

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Nine of the 12 patients identified with brain inflammation were also diagnosed with acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM), which is rare and sometimes deadly.

Researchers also reported that one of the patients, a 55-year-old woman, hallucinated, seeing lions and monkeys in her house.

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It is still not known why COVID-19 patients are developing these brain complications, as the virus "was not detected in the cerebrospinal brain fluid of any of the patients tested," according to the press release.

This suggests "the virus did not directly attack the brain to cause the neurological illness," and researchers theorize the complications could be indirectly caused by the body's immune response to the virus rather than the virus itself. However, further research is needed to fully understand why patients were developing these complications.

Regardless, the findings are important for doctors around the world who are monitoring and treating coronavirus patients.

"Given that the disease has only been around for a matter of months, we might not yet know what long-term damage COVID-19 can cause," joint first author Dr. Ross Paterson said. "Doctors needs to be aware of possible neurological effects, as early diagnosis can improve patient outcomes. People recovering from the virus should seek professional health advice if they experience neurological symptoms."

Previously reported longterm effects of COVID-19 include acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), a potentially life-threatening lung injury that could require treatment in an intensive care unit (ICU), per Healthline.

“Patients with acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), seen often in severe COVID-19 illness, sometimes develop permanent lung damage or fibrosis as well," Dr. Andrew Martin told the outlet. "Viral respiratory infections can lead to anything from a simple cough that lasts for a few weeks or months to full-blown chronic wheezing or asthma."

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