SAN DIEGO, Calif. — COVID-19 may be a virus that generally impacts the respiratory system, but its impact on the brain is well-documented. While many patients end up dealing with neurological problems after their infection, extremely serious issues like brain inflammation typically affect older patients. Now, however, a new study is revealing what doctors believe is the first case of brain inflammation in a young and healthy adult with mild COVID symptoms.
Researchers from the University of California-San Diego report that a 26-year-old woman contracted COVID-19 after a plane flight in March 2020, the start of the pandemic in the United States. Her symptoms were mild but progressed after two to three weeks to having difficultly moving parts of her body. Specifically, the 26-year-old experienced weakness in the left side and had trouble moving her left foot.
Despite these issues, doctors report that the patient did not have any headaches and did not experience any problems with thinking (brain fog). Using MRI scans, doctors discovered that the young woman had multiple lesions in the right frontoparietal region of her brain. This section of the brain helps to maintain motor control and sensation in the left side of the body.
After the discovery, the 26-year-old underwent a biopsy which revealed CNS lymphocytic vasculitis — inflammation or swelling of blood vessels in the brain or spine.
“This patient was first confirmed case of COVID-19 CNS vasculitis, confirmed by biopsy, in a young healthy patient with otherwise mild COVID-19 infection,” says corresponding senior author Jennifer Graves, MD, PhD, a neurologist at UC San Diego Health, in a university release.
COVID’s concerning link to the brain
Previous studies have revealed that coronavirus infections leave one in three patients dealing with neurological or psychiatric conditions months after their illness. The most common symptoms of these issues include headaches, anxiety, difficulty concentrating or paying attention, and the development of depression.
Study authors note that other COVID patients have had blood vessel damage and inflammation in their brains and central nervous system. Most of these CNS vasculitis, however, occur in elderly patients of those with severe symptoms of the virus.
Following the diagnosis, the 26-year-old received a series of corticosteroid-based treatments and has been placed on long-term immunosuppressive medication. After six months, researchers report that the woman’s lesions had significantly decreased and no new lesions formed. The patient is still on immunosuppressive medications.
“Her case tells researchers and clinicians to consider these serious potential brain complications even in young patients and those with minor initial COVID-19 infections,” adds Graves, an associate professor of neurosciences at UC San Diego School of Medicine.
Researchers documented the findings in the journal Neurology: Neuroimmunology & Neuroinflammation.