Pre-Existing Conditions May Increase Risk Of Serious Brain Defects In Covid-19 Patients

An MRI scan of the head. Speedkingz/Shutterstock.com

Patients with diabetes and hypertension may be at higher risk of neurological complications if they get Covid-19, suggests a study presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

Over the past few months, increasing evidence suggests Covid-19 affects not just the lungs but also the brain and heart. Neurological symptoms have previously been found in patients, including a study where nearly 69 percent of Covid-19 patients tested had an overall slowing of brain waves.

"Covid-19's effects extend far beyond the chest," said study lead author Colbey W. Freeman, M.D., chief resident in the Department of Radiology at Penn Medicine in Philadelphia, in a statement. "While complications in the brain are rare, they are an increasingly reported and potentially devastating consequence of Covid-19 infection."

Scientists remain puzzled by the virus’s ability to attack the brain and nervous symptom, and are still unsure whether the virus directly attacks the nervous system or if the damage is a result of a severe inflammatory response.

To understand the extent of neurological symptoms, researchers from Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania analyzed tests on 1,357 patients that were admitted to the hospital from January to April 2020. Of these, 81 patients received brain scans.

While the most common reason for receiving a brain scan was an altered mental state and neurological issues, many scans highlighted a critical issue that required urgent treatment. There were 18 patients with an emergency condition, including stroke, brain hemorrhage, and blocked blood vessels, and over the course of the study three patients died.

The researchers noted a correlation between existing conditions and a serious neurological disorder. Nine out of the 18 patients had either existing type 2 diabetes mellitus or high blood pressure. The authors believe the results call for increased characterization of risk factors and monitoring of at-risk patients as hospitals continue to fight Covid-19.

"Covid-19's effects extend far beyond the chest," continued Freeman. "While complications in the brain are rare, they are an increasingly reported and potentially devastating consequence of Covid-19 infection."

So why is it that these conditions correlate with increased risk of neurological defects? The researchers aren’t quite sure. High levels of inflammation markers were found in the critical patients, suggesting Covid-related inflammation may predispose the patients to brain disorders. Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure have been shown to correlate with stroke, as well as some evidence of increased likelihood of brain hemorrhaging, but it remains unclear whether Covid-19 exacerbates this risk.

The researchers will continue the research, as well as initiate new studies to try to understand the long-term impacts of Covid-19.

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