Nearly one-third of hospitalized COVID-19 patients experienced altered mental function, a recent study found.
The study, published in early October in the Annals of Clinical and Translational Neurology, surveyed the first 509 patients hospitalized in Chicago’s Northwestern Medicine health system and revealed that 162 patients experienced a form of encephalopathy after contracting the virus.
“Encephalopathy is a generic term meaning something’s wrong with the brain,” Dr. Koralnik, head of the Neuro COVID-19 Clinic at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, said. Those with encephalopathy experience problems with memory, attention, and concentration and can even fall into a coma-like level of unresponsiveness. The study found those with encephalopathy were also seven times more likely to die from the coronavirus than those without it.
Medical professionals say the study is significant because it’s one of the first deep analyses of the neurological impact of the coronavirus.
“This is an important study, since the neurological complications of the infection seem to be frequent and in many cases long-lasting, but yet have not received much attention,” said Dr. Avindra Nath, chief of the section on infections of the nervous system at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Others, like Koralnik, tempered the results, saying more evidence must be found before we can deduce facts about how COVID-19 impacts the brain and our mental functions.
“I think we should be careful trying to ascribe a risk to an individual, based on this retrospective study,” he said. “We need to know more about that individual’s health records, which are not public.”
A majority of those experiencing encephalopathy were more likely to have underlying health conditions impacting their overall neurological health. Beyond this initial study, there is little evidence suggesting how and if the coronavirus directly attacks brain cells.
Others have drawn connections between the study’s findings and President Donald Trump. A majority of those experiencing COVID-related encephalopathy were older white males with a history of high cholesterol, leading some to believe Trump could experience neurological complications from contracting COVID-19. The president’s health staff have been dismissive of the possibility as Trump returned to his campaign schedule in mid-October.