COVID-19 often causes brain injuries, study shows

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In a new study, researchers found that without directly invading the brain or nerves, the virus responsible for COVID-19 causes potentially damaging neurological injuries in about one in seven infected.

These injuries range from temporary confusion due to low body-oxygen levels, to stroke and seizures in the most serious cases.

They also showed no cases of brain or nerve inflammation (meningitis or encephalitis), indicating no immediate invasion of these organs by the pandemic virus, SARS-CoV-2.

While this should reassure patients, the neurological complications of COVID-19 should be taken seriously because they dramatically raise a patient’s risk of dying while still in hospital (by 38%).

Such adverse effects also raise a coronavirus patient’s likelihood (by 28%) of needing long-term or rehabilitation therapy immediately after their stay in hospital.

The researchers say that the results showed no signs that the coronavirus directly attacks the nervous system.

The neurological complications seen in COVID-19 are predominately the secondary effects of being severely ill and suffering from low oxygen levels in the body for prolonged periods of time.

The research was conducted by a team at NYU Grossman School of Medicine and elsewhere.

In the study, the team closely monitored the progress of 606 COVID-19 adult patients diagnosed with brain or other nerve-related medical conditions at any of four NYU Langone hospitals in New York City and Long Island between March 10 and May 20, when coronavirus infections were at their peak in the region.

Early reports from Asia and Europe, where infections had spiked before rising in the United States, had also “raised the alarm” about possible brain damage from coronavirus infection.

Because of this, the research team was ready to look for any signs of neurological dysfunction among the thousands of patients being admitted to the hospital in the spring.

Among all the hospitals, 4,491 patients tested positive for COVID-19 during that time.

Among the study’s other key results were that common neurological problems, such as confusion caused by chemical electrolyte imbalances, severe infection, or kidney failure, usually arose within 48 hours of developing general COVID-19 symptoms, including fever, difficulty breathing, and cough.

Half of those neurologically affected were over the age of 71, which researchers say is much older than the other 3,885 patients with COVID-19 (at a media age of 63) who did not experience brain dysfunction.

While the coronavirus is known to attack other organs, including blood vessels and the heart, researchers say its main target is the lungs, where it makes breathing difficult, starving the body of the oxygen it needs to stay alive.

Low levels of oxygen in the body and brain was another common neurological problem, study results showed, that could lead to confusion, coma, or permanent brain damage.

The team says various blood-oxygen-raising therapies that could possibly work against neurological problems in patients with COVID-19 include early intubation or use of heart-lung machines, called ECMO, which mechanically “clean” the blood and “deliver” oxygen into it.

One author of the study is Jennifer Frontera, MD.

The study is published in Neurology.

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