Severe Covid-19 can damage the brain, preliminary study finds

Henrietta Brewer
June 29, 2020

Detailed long-term studies are needed in order to confirm if there is any link between COVID-19 infection and the onset of psychiatric or neuropsychiatric complications in younger patients.

This inflammation in major arteries leading to the brain is thought to be behind the psychiatric problems seen in some patients.

A new study shows that severe cases of the coronavirus can cause strokes and other neurological issues, or an "altered mental state" for patients.

The researchers found 77 COVID patients in British hospitals who had either a stroke or a brain hemorrhage.

Out of 155, 57 patients had a stroke caused by a blood clot in the brain, known as an ischaemic stroke. Most of the patients who had a stroke were older than 60 years of age.

Nearly a third experienced signs of confusion or changes in behavior reflecting an altered mental state. Thirty-nine patients demonstrated signs of confusion or unusual behavior, seven of whom were diagnosed with encephalitis or an inflammation of the brain. The rest 23 also had similar symptoms like psychosis, dementia-like state, and other disorders.

During three weeks of the exponential pandemic phase, the researchers studied the clinical data of 125 people from across the United Kingdom who had new diagnoses of both Covid-19 and a neurological or psychiatric condition.

But the researchers say they can not exclude the possibility that these people were living with undiagnosed conditions beforehand. Ten patients had a new-onset psychosis; six had dementia-like conditions; and seven had signs of a mood disorder, including depression and anxiety, the study found.

Age information was available for 37 of the 39 patients with an altered mental state and of those, around half were aged under 60 years of age (49%, 18/37).

Lead author Benedict Michael, senior clinician scientist fellow at the University of Liverpool, told The Guardian: "There have been growing reports of an association between Covid-19 infection and possible neurological or psychiatric complications, but until now these have typically been limited to studies of 10 patients or fewer".

A further 21 of 23 patients were diagnosed with psychiatric illnesses linked to brain trauma suffered from severe COVID-19 infections.

Further research is needed to better understand brain complications in people with Covid-19 who aren't sick enough to be hospitalized, she said. The study included patients with confirmed COVID-19 infection by PCR test (114 people), probable infection as diagnosed from chest X-rays or CT scans (6 people), and possible infection, where patients had symptoms consistent with disease but diagnostic tests were either negative or not done (5 people).

'However, because this is only a series of case reports of patients seen by certain types of hospital specialists, we can not be certain that these illnesses were in fact caused by Covid-19 or were simply co-occurring. Time will answer us more questions as this is just an initial report, and people need not panic about this until further studies are made.

Ninety-two percent of the psychiatric diagnoses were believed to be new.

'My concern is that this [latest study] is a classic case of doctors putting things in boxes.

The researchers focused on cases with known neurological or psychiatric problems, and did not try to figure out how common these kinds of issues are for people with the coronavirus.

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