For Julie Helms, it started with a handful of patients admitted to her intensive care unit at Strasbourg University Hospital in northeast France in early March 2020. Within days, every single patient in the ICU had Covid-19 – and it was not just their breathing difficulties that alarmed her.
“They were extremely agitated, and many had neurological problems – mainly confusion and delirium,” she says. “We are used to having some patients in the ICU who are agitated and require sedation, but this was completely abnormal. It has been very scary, especially because many of the people we treated were very young – many in their 30s and 40s, even an 18-year-old.”
Helms and her colleagues published a small study in the New England Journal of Medicine documenting the neurological symptoms in their Covid-19 patients, ranging from cognitive difficulties to confusion. All are signs of “encephalopathy” (the general term for damage to the brain) – a trend that researchers in Wuhan had noticed in coronavirus patients there in February.
Now, more than 300 studies from around the world have found a prevalence of neurological abnormalities in Covid-19 patients, including mild symptoms like headaches, loss of smell (anosmia) and tingling sensations (arcoparasthesia), up to more severe outcomes such as aphasia (inability to speak), strokes and seizures. This is in addition to recent findings that the virus, which has been largely considered to be a respiratory disease, can also wreak havoc on the kidneys, liver, heart, and just about every organ system in the body.