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CHICAGO – While COVID-19 was initially thought to target only the respiratory system, recent evidence suggests that the virus impacts multiple other organs. Adding to that evidence is a new study by researchers at Northwestern University which suggests that COVID-19 threatens the entire nervous system.

In the study, researchers reviewed previous studies of patients hospitalized with the novel coronavirus. They found that approximately half of the patients demonstrate neurological symptoms. For some, those symptoms include headache, dizziness, problems concentrating, reduced alertness, loss of smell and taste, weakness, or muscle pain. Others experience severe symptoms, such as seizures or even a stroke.

“It’s important for the general public and physicians to be aware of this, because a SARS-COV-2 infection may present with neurologic symptoms initially, before any fever, cough or respiratory problems occur,” explains lead researcher, Dr. Igor Koralnik, Northwestern Medicine chief of neuro-infectious diseases and global neurology, in a statement.

Koralnik is also a professor of neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

More Questions Than Answers In COVID-19 Research

While it is now clear that the coronavirus is associated with neurological symptoms, it is less clear how the virus causes these symptoms. Because the virus affects the respiratory system, one way it may impact the nervous system is by causing a lack of oxygen to the brain. Alternatively, the virus may cause inflammation within the nervous system that can harm the brain. It may even cause a direct brain infection.

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Given how much remains unknown about COVID-19, more research is needed to fully understand its neurological symptoms. Moreover, researchers are still determining the most appropriate way to diagnose and treat these symptoms.

To meet this need, Koralnik and colleagues have formed a Neuro-COVID research team. The team will examine patients hospitalized at Northwestern Medicine to better understand the prevalence of neurological symptoms of the virus, as well as patients’ response to treatment. Koralnik will also continue to monitor outpatients at his new Neuro-COVID clinic to determine whether coronavirus-related neurological symptoms are temporary or permanent.

“This understanding is key to direct appropriate clinical management and treatment,” Koralnik said.

The study is published in Annals of Neurology.

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About Brianna Sleezer

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