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Scientists warn of brain damage linked to COVID-19

Published on 10/07/20 at 11:29am
Photo by Mikhail Kalinin

COVID-19 could lead to a wave of brain damage in people who were infected with the virus.

Experts at the University College London (UCL) have found that the virus could cause neurological complications including nerve damage, stroke and potentially fatal brain inflammation.  

These were the findings of a study published in Brain, which examined 43 patients treated at the UCL Hospitals for COVID-19 in April and May. The patients involved were aged between 16 to 85, and suffered from mild to severe cases of the virus. Most of those who showed brain inflammation were diagnosed with a rare and sometimes deadly condition known as acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM).

Dr Michael Zandi, part of the research team at UCL, said: “We should be vigilant and look out for these complications in people who have had COVID-19. But it is unknown whether we will see an epidemic on a large scale of brain damage linked to the pandemic.”

Before the pandemic the team at UCL only saw about one ADEM patient a month which has rose to about one a week during the study period. The team is still trying to understand how the virus causes these neurological problems, as the COVID-19 was not found in the brain fluid which means it does not directly attack the brain. One theory suggests that the complications arise due to the immune response from the patient to the virus.

Dr David Strain, from the University of Exeter Medical School, who was not involved with the study, said that: “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.”

Conor Kavanagh

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