The study is the first to analyse the effects of the disease on the brain. Results found that neurological effects were seen in just over a third of all cases of hospitalised COVID-19 patients. This affected more than 45 percent of those with severe infections.
Patients with COVID-19 have also suffered strokes and other neurological symptoms
The study was carried out by researchers at Huazhong University in Wuhan, and the Barrow Neurological Institute in Arizona.
The team analysed cases in Wuhan in China, the original epicentre of the outbreak.
They used cases between 16 January and 19 February – including 214 hospitalised patients whose diagnoses were laboratory-confirmed.
Just over a third of these patients, 78 (36.4 percent), had neurological symptoms as well as respiratory symptoms.
It isn’t yet clear if the coronavirus is causing the strokes directly, or if this is a result of the body’s inflammatory response.
Leading neurologists say more research is needed.
“Compared with patients with non-severe infection, patients with severe infection were older, had more underlying disorders, especially hypertension, and showed fewer typical symptoms of COVID-19, such as fever and cough,” they found.
The study, in the journal JAMA, was published alongside an editorial by leading neurologists.
JUST IN: Coronavirus symptoms: A loss of desire in this everyday habit could signal an infection
The editorial notes the similarity of the coronavirus to SARS – which researchers have shown caused strokes.
However, unlike in SARS patients, the new study found that neurological symptoms could occur very early within the infection.
Some patients presented at hospital without a fever but had neurological issues.
This included loss of taste or smell, as well more significant impacts such as impaired consciousness, headaches and dizziness.
The scientists warn that the disease may infect the “nervous system and skeletal muscle as well as [the] respiratory tract” which could provide healthcare workers with an additional way to diagnose patients.
COVID-19 has “now reached pandemic status and is common all over the world” said the neurologists in their editorial.
“With so many affected patients, we can expect as neurologists to be confronted with these patients commonly in coming months and years.”
The news comes amid fears seriously ill children aren’t being taken to hospital over coronavirus fears.
A consultant in paediatric infectious diseases at Southampton Children’s Hospital has said fewer children were being brought to the emergency department with conditions such as appendicitis, dehydration and sepsis.
However, those who are being brought in are more severely ill.
Dr Sanjay Patel said some parents were not seeking help as they were worried their child could contract COVID-19 in hospital.
The consultant has urged parents to follow government advice, especially regarding social distancing.
Dr Patel said: “These are extremely challenging and worrying times for families and I can’t stress how important it is to follow the government advice about social distancing in order to slow down the speed of COVID-19.
“However, I’m really worried there is a very real risk that some children with illnesses such as appendicitis, dehydration or even sepsis are not being brought to see healthcare professionals as quickly as they would be normally.
“We are seeing fewer children than we would expect to see at this time of year, particularly through our emergency department, and those we are seeing who do not have COVID-19 are more severely unwell.
“We’ve seen evidence of this in Hampshire as well as across the country.”