Fears COVID-19 could lead to brain diseases

There are fears history could repeat around the world and we could see a rise in brain illnesses following the coronavirus pandemic.

There are fears brain illnesses could become more prevalent in recovered coronavirus patients.
Around the world coronavirus has killed around 4.5 per cent of the close to 12 million people confirmed to contract it, but those who have “recovered” from COVID-19 have still had severe damage inflicted on their organs.

Half a year into a pandemic it’s as yet unclear exactly what the virus does to the body. And there are new reports of brain illness in infected patients.

According to a neurology professor at the University College London, the virus appears to have four notable impacts on the brain and nervous system.

One key thing we’re seeing is that severity of lung illness doesn’t always correlate with severity of neurological illness, Professor Michael Zandi wrote in The Conversation.
Having only minor lung illness doesn’t protect against potentially severe complications, he said.

He noted reports of patients experiencing a “confused state (known as delirium or encephalopathy), sometimes with psychosis and memory disturbance”.

Inflammation of the brain, including a form that shows inflammatory lesions, has also been reported.
He also reported evidence of blood clots that can lead to stroke, and potential damage to nerves that can cause pain and numbness as your body’s immune system attacks the nervous system.

Prof Zandi noted the effects were being seen around the world. Some have died as a result, while others have been left with long-term damage.

Prof Zandi questioned whether COVID-19 could lead to a secondary epidemic in brain illnesses, noting a rise in encephalitis lethargica (the “sleeping sickness”) that coincided with the Spanish Influenza pandemic around 100 years ago.

The epidemic of sleeping sickness actually began a few years before the Spanish flu, and Prof Zandi said that while the two coincided, it’s been hard to directly link them to one another.

He said the feelings of confusion and disorientation experienced by some COVID-19 patients was mostly short-lived, but said it’s possible the virus could create long-term memory problems or even dementia.

The virus can directly infect the brain, but Prof Zandi said the effects on patients look to be secondary impacts of the virus’ presence rather than the result of direct infection.

Increased thickness of the blood caused by COVID-19 is believed to be the reason some patients were having blood clots and strokes.

All of these effects on the brain and nervous system have the potential for long-term damage and can stack up in an individual, Prof Zandi wrote.
But we need to know more about what’s going on in people’s nervous systems before we can accurately predict any long-term effects.

He suggested increasing the amount of MRIs being conducted on patients, noting that so far brain imaging of patients and post-mortem studies of victims have been limited.

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Prof Zandi said the pandemic has exposed disparities in healthcare access around the world and societies will be judged on how they protect and treat the people most at risk, including people with neurological diseases arising from COVID-19.

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