Neurologic symptoms and COVID-19: What’s known, what isn’t


Since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed the first US case of novel coronavirus infection on January 20, much of the clinical focus has naturally centered on the virus’ prodromal symptoms and severe respiratory effects.

However, US neurologists are now reporting that COVID-19 symptoms may also include encephalopathy, ataxia, and other neurologic signs.

“I am hearing about strokes, ataxia, myelitis, etc,” Stephan Mayer, MD, a neurointensivist in Troy, Michigan, posted on Twitter on March 26.

Other possible signs and symptoms include subtle neurologic deficits, severe fatigue, trigeminal neuralgia, complete/severe anosmia, and myalgia as reported by clinicians who responded to the tweet.

On March 31, the first presumptive case of encephalitis linked to COVID-19 was documented in a 58-year-old woman treated at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit.

Physicians who reported the acute necrotizing hemorrhagic encephalopathy case in the journal Radiology counseled neurologists to suspect the virus in patients presenting with altered levels of consciousness.

Researchers in China also reported the first presumptive case of Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS) associated with COVID-19. A 61-year-old woman initially presented with signs of the autoimmune neuropathy GBS, including leg weakness, and severe fatigue after returning from Wuhan, China. She did not initially present with the common COVID-19 symptoms of fever, cough, or chest pain.

Her muscle weakness and distal areflexia progressed over time. On day 8, the patient developed more characteristic COVID-19 signs, including ‘ground glass’ lung opacities, dry cough, and fever. She was treated with antivirals, immunoglobulins, and supportive care, recovering slowly until discharge on day 30.

“Our single-case report only suggests a possible association between GBS and SARS-CoV-2 infection. It may or may not have causal relationship. More cases with epidemiological data are necessary,” said senior author Sheng Chen, MD, PhD.

However, “we still suggest physicians who encounter acute GBS patients from pandemic areas protect themselves carefully and test for the virus on admission. If the results are positive, the patient needs to be isolated,” added Dr. Chen, a neurologist at Shanghai Ruijin Hospital and Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine in China.

Neurologic presentations of COVID-19 “are not common, but could happen,” Dr. Chen added. Headache, muscle weakness, and myalgias have been documented in other patients in China, he said.

Early days

Despite this growing number of anecdotal reports and observational data documenting neurologic effects, the majority of patients with COVID-19 do not present with such symptoms.

“Most COVID-19 patients we have seen have a normal neurological presentation. Abnormal neurological findings we have seen include loss of smell and taste sensation, and states of altered mental status including confusion, lethargy, and coma,” said Robert Stevens, MD, who focuses on neuroscience critical care at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland.

Other groups are reporting seizures, spinal cord disease, and brain stem disease. It has been suggested that brain stem dysfunction may account for the loss of hypoxic respiratory drive seen in a subset of patients with severe COVID-19 disease, he added.

However, Dr. Stevens, who plans to track neurologic outcomes in COVID-19 patients, also cautioned that it’s still early and these case reports are preliminary.

“An important caveat is that our knowledge of the different neurological presentations reported in association with COVID-19 is purely descriptive. We know almost nothing about the potential interactions between COVID-19 and the nervous system,” he noted.

He added it’s likely that some of the neurologic phenomena in COVID-19 are not causally related to the virus.

“This is why we have decided to establish a multisite neuro–COVID-19 data registry, so that we can gain epidemiological and mechanistic insight on these phenomena,” he said.

Nevertheless, in an online report February 27 in the Journal of Medical Virology, Yan-Chao Li, MD, and colleagues wrote that “increasing evidence shows that coronaviruses are not always confined to the respiratory tract and that they may also invade the central nervous system, inducing neurological diseases.”

Dr. Li is affiliated with the Department of Histology and Embryology, College of Basic Medical Sciences, Norman Bethune College of Medicine, Jilin University, Changchun, China.


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