Scientists yesterday warned of a potential wave of coronavirus-related brain damage as new evidence suggested COVID-19 can lead to severe neurological complications, including inflammation, psychosis and delirium.
A study by researchers at University College London (UCL) described 43 cases of patients with COVID-19 who suffered either temporary brain dysfunction, strokes, nerve damage or other serious brain effects.
The research adds to recent studies which also found the disease can damage the brain. "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," said Michael Zandi, from UCL's Institute of Neurology, who co-led the study.
COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, is largely a respiratory illness that affects the lungs, but neuroscientists and specialist brain doctors say emerging evidence of its impact on the brain is concerning.
"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," Adrian Owen, a neuroscientist at Western University in Canada, told Reuters in an interview.
In the UCL study, published in the journal Brain, nine patients who had brain inflammation were diagnosed with a rare condition called acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM) which is more usually seen in children and can be triggered by viral infections. The team said they saw a alarming increase in ADEM cases.
"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," said Ross Paterson, who co-led the study. "Doctors need to be aware of possible neurological effects, as early diagnosis can improve patient outcomes."
Meanwhile, a UN report yesterday said that a rush by countries to buy personal protective equipment during the pandemic has created an opportunity for criminal groups, which are peddling sub-standard equipment and likely to move on to medicines soon.
Criminals have adapted quickly, also running scams where no equipment is supplied at all, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in the report.