The more we continue to learn about the novel coronavirus, the more grim the situation becomes. British researchers are now warning that the rapidly spreading virus could cause a wave of brain damage in infected patients.
In a new study released on Wednesday, experts at the University College London (UCL) confirmed that Covid-19 could lead to deadly neurological complications including stroke, nerve damage, and potentially fatal brain inflammation even in patients who didn’t show severe respiratory symptoms associated with the virus, though follow-up studies are required to understand the potential long-term neurological consequences of the pandemic, according to the experts.
“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,” said joint first author Dr. Ross Paterson in the press release. “Doctors need to be aware of possible neurological effects, as early diagnosis can improve patient outcomes.”
The study, which was published in the journal Brain, examined 43 patients being treated at University College London Hospitals for either confirmed or suspected coronavirus, from April to May. The patients ranged fromages 16 to 85, with each showing symptoms ranging from mild to severe. Shockingly, among these patients, researchers discovered 10 cases of “temporary brain dysfunction” and delirium, 12 cases of brain inflammation, eight cases of strokes and another eight cases of nerve damage.
The majority of the patients who displayed brain inflammation were diagnosed with a rare and potentially deadly condition known as Acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM). Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the research team in London would come across approximately one ADEM case per month. However, during the duration of the study, the number increased to at least one a week.
One woman experienced hallucinations of lions and monkeys in her home while others reported having numbness in their limbs or face, double vision, and disorientation. One of the patients in the most severe condition was barely conscious, able to respond only when in pain.
“We should be vigilant and look out for these complications in people who have had Covid-19,” said joint senior author Dr. Michael Zandi in a UCL press release.
Researchers are left scrambling to figure out why exactly Covid-19 patients are developing brain complications. To further the mystery, the virus which causes Covid-19 was not found in the patient’s brain fluid. This means that the virus does not appear to directly attack the brain. One theory is that the complications are indirectly triggered by an immune response from the patient’s body as opposed to the virus itself.
For those patients who aren’t exhibiting severe respiratory symptoms such as trouble with breathing, it may prove difficult to identify and treat the brain complications early enough to prevent damage. And for patients who are critically ill, their precarious health may limit how much doctors can do to investigate possible damage to their brain.
Dr. David Strain of the University of Exeter Medical School, who was not part of the study, called the findings “not surprising” given previous coronavirus cases and the fact that researchers knew very little about the disease upon it’s insurgence.
“The main limitation is that we don’t know what the denominator so we don’t know how frequently these complications arise. We’ve already seen that some people with Covid-19 may need a long rehabilitation period — both physical rehabilitation such as exercise, and brain rehabilitation. We need to understand more about the impact of this infection on the brain.”