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Neurological problems affect 8 out of 10 COVID-19 patients

A new study reveals that 8 out of 10 patients hospitalized for COVID-19 develop neurological issues. Furthermore, COVID-19 patients with clinically diagnosed neurological symptoms are six times more likely to die in the hospital than those without neurological complications.

The researchers analyzed data from the Global Consortium Study of Neurologic Dysfunction in COVID-19 (GCS-NeuroCOVID), a large cohort study that includes 133 adult patient sites on every continent except Antarctica.

The goal of GCS-NeuroCOVID is to gather information about the incidence, severity, and outcomes of the neurological manifestations of COVID-19.

Study lead author Dr. Sherry Chou is the principal investigator of the consortium and an associate professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and UPMC. 

“Very early on in the pandemic, it became apparent that a good number of people who were sick enough to be hospitalized also develop neurological problems,” said Dr. Chou.

“A year later, we are still fighting an unknown invisible enemy and, like in any battle, we need intel – we have to learn as much as we can about neurological impacts of COVID-19 in patients who are actively sick and in survivors.”

In one group of 3,744 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, 82 percent had neurological symptoms. Nearly 4 out of 10 patients reported headaches, while 3 out of 10 lost their sense of smell or taste. 

The most common neurological syndrome that was clinically diagnosed was acute encephalopathy, which is characterized by mental confusion. 

“Acute encephalopathy is by far the most common symptom that we see in the clinic,” said Dr. Chou. “Those patients may be in an altered sensory state or have impaired consciousness, or they don’t feel like themselves and act confused, delirious or agitated.”

Patients with a pre-existing neurological condition of any kind, such as chronic migraines, dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, had more than double the risk of developing COVID-19-related neurological complications.

Furthermore, patients who experience any neurological symptoms related to COVID-19, even something as seemingly harmless as the loss of smell, have six times the risk of death. For individuals with neurological symptoms that recover, their long-term health outlook is still uncertain.

“Even if the pandemic is completely eradicated, we are still talking about millions of survivors who need our help,” said Dr. Chou. “It is important to find out what symptoms and health problems those patients are facing, and there is still plenty of work for years to come.”

The study is published in the journal JAMA Network Open.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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