Neurologic Symptoms and COVID-19

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 could include encephalopathy, ataxia, and other neurologic signs.

Other possible signs and symptoms include subtle neurologic deficits, severe fatigue, trigeminal neuralgia, complete/severe anosmia, and myalgia as reported several clinicians.

Last week 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 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.

We know almost nothing about the potential interactions between COVID-19 and the nervous system.

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.

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.

It's likely that some of the neurologic phenomena in COVID-19 are not causally related to the virus.

Clinicians in China also report neurologic symptoms in some patients. A study of 221 consecutive COVID-19 patients in Wuhan revealed 11 patients developed acute ischemic stroke, one experienced cerebral venous sinus thrombosis, and another experienced cerebral hemorrhage.

Older age and more severe disease were associated with a greater likelihood for cerebrovascular disease.