Patients with COVID-19 have suffered strokes and other neurological symptoms, according to the first scientific study to analyse the effects of the disease on the brain.
The study found that neurological effects were seen in just over a third of all cases of hospitalised COVID-19 patients, but affected more than 45% of those with severe infections.
It isn’t yet clear if the coronavirus is causing the strokes directly or as a result of the body’s inflammatory response, and leading neurologists say more research is needed.
They warn that as well as respiratory symptoms, doctors need to consider potential neurological effects when assessing new patients.
The study was carried out by researchers at Huazhong University in Wuhan, and the Barrow Neurological Institute in Arizona.
The team analysed cases in Wuhan in China, the original epicentre of the outbreak, between 16 January and 19 February – including 214 hospitalised patients whose diagnoses were laboratory-confirmed.
Just over a third of these patients, 78 (36.4%), had neurological symptoms as well as respiratory symptoms.
“Compared with patients with non-severe infection, patients with severe infection were older, had more underlying disorders, especially hypertension, and showed fewer typical symptoms of COVID-19, such as fever and cough,” they found.
The study, in the journal JAMA, was published alongside an editorial by leading neurologists which notes the similarity of the coronavirus to SARS – which researchers have shown caused strokes.
However, unlike in SARS patients, the new study found that neurological symptoms could occur very early within the infection.
Some patients presented at hospital without a fever but had neurological issues including losing their taste or smell, as well more significant impacts such as impaired consciousness, headaches and dizziness.
The scientists warn that the disease may infect the “nervous system and skeletal muscle as well as [the] respiratory tract” which could provide healthcare workers with an additional way to diagnose patients.
COVID-19 has “now reached pandemic status and is common all over the world” said the neurologists in their editorial.
“With so many affected patients, we can expect as neurologists to be confronted with these patients commonly in coming months and years.”