KEY POINTS

  • Scientists express concern COVID-19 may lead to neurological issues
  • Inflammation of the brain, delirium, and psychosis are the possible effects
  • According to a University College London study, nine patients who experienced inflammation of the brain also developed acute disseminated encephalomyelitis

A likely wave of COVID-19-related brain damage may be in the offing as new evidence suggested coronavirus infection could lead to severe neurological complications, scientists warned.

Researchers from the University College London (UCL) said they found evidence that showed COVID-19 can cause delirium, inflammation of the brain, and, in worst cases, psychosis. Their study detailed 43 patients with COVID-19 who suffered either nerve damage or strokes. Some of them also experienced temporary brain dysfunction or other serious brain damages.

The study added to the growing body of evidence that claimed the disease may cause damage to the brain. Michael Zandi, a professor at the Institute of Neurology at UCL and co-author of the study, however, said, for now, there was much uncertainty on the extent of a possible epidemic.

"Whether we will see an epidemic on a large scale of brain damage linked to the pandemic perhaps similar to the encephalitis lethargica outbreak in the 1920s and 1930s after the 1918 influenza pandemic remains to be seen," he said.

scientists warn about a likely huge wave of brain damage resulting from coronavirus infections scientists warn about a likely huge wave of brain damage resulting from coronavirus infections Photo: enriquelopezgarre - Pixabay

COVID-19 is primarily a respiratory ailment affecting the lungs. However, neuroscientists and specialist brain doctors expressed concerns over the mounting evidence of its adverse impact on the brain.

Talking about the sheer number of people infected by COVID-19, Dr. Adrian Owen, a neuroscientist in Canada, told Reuters, "My worry is that we have millions of people with COVID-19 now. And if in a year's time we have 10 million recovered people, and those people have cognitive deficits ... then that's going to affect their ability to work and their ability to go about activities of daily living."

In the study conducted by UCL, nine patients who experienced inflammation of the brain also developed a rare medical condition called acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM). Scientists said this condition often affects children and was usually brought about by viral infections.

The research team said their specialist London clinic would normally see one adult patient with ADEM each month, but this had increased to once every week during the study period. Scientists said this was a cause for concern.

"Given that the disease has only been around for a matter of months, we might not yet know what long-term damage COVID-19 can cause," Ross Paterson, another co-author of the study, said.

Paterson added medical professionals need to be aware of likely neurological effects, as early diagnosis can help improve the outcomes. For Dr. Owen, the emerging evidence stressed the need for large-scale and detailed research, as well as global data collection to analyze how common such psychiatric and neurological complications were.

Owen runs an international research endeavor at covidbrainstudy.com where patients can log in to perform several cognitive tests to check whether their brain functions have changed since getting infected with the coronavirus.

"This disease is affecting an enormous number of people," he said, adding this was the reason why it was very important to obtain global data.