Doctors are preventing not solely to save lots of lives from COVID-19, but additionally to guard sufferers’ brains.
Although COVID-19 is greatest identified for damaging the lungs, it additionally increases the risk of life-threatening brain injuries — from psychological confusion to hallucinations, seizures, coma, stroke and paralysis. The virus may invade the brain, in addition to starve the organ of oxygen by damaging the lungs. To battle the an infection, the immune system typically overreacts, battering the mind and different organs it usually protects.
Yet the pandemic has severely limited the ability of docs and nurses to forestall and deal with neurological issues. The severity of the illness and the heightened danger of an infection have pressured medical groups to desert lots of the practices that assist them shield sufferers from delirium, a typical facet impact of mechanical ventilators and intensive care.
And whereas COVID-19 will increase the chance of strokes, the pandemic has made it tougher to diagnose them.
When docs suspect a stroke, they normally order a mind MRI — a classy sort of scan. But many sufferers hospitalized with COVID-19 are too sick or unstable to be wheeled throughout the hospital to a scanner, mentioned Dr. Kevin Sheth, a professor of neurology and neurosurgery on the Yale School of Medicine.
“Our hands are much more tied right now than before the pandemic,” says Dr. Sherry Chou, affiliate professor of vital care medication, neurology and neurosurgery on the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
Many docs additionally hesitate to request MRIs for concern that sufferers will contaminate the scanner and infect different sufferers and employees members.
“Our hands are much more tied right now than before the pandemic,” mentioned Dr. Sherry Chou, an affiliate professor of vital care medication, neurology and neurosurgery on the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
In many circumstances, docs can’t even study sufferers’ reflexes and coordination as a result of sufferers are so closely sedated.
“We may not know if they’ve had a stroke,” Sheth mentioned.
A study from Wuhan, China — the place the primary COVID-19 circumstances have been detected — discovered 36% of sufferers had neurological signs, together with complications, adjustments in consciousness, strokes and lack of muscle coordination.
A smaller, French study noticed such signs in 84% of sufferers, a lot of which continued after folks left the hospital.
Some hospitals try to get round these issues by utilizing new know-how to watch and picture the mind.
New York’s Northwell Health is utilizing a cell MRI machine for COVID sufferers, mentioned Dr. Richard Temes, the well being system’s director of neurocritical care. The scanner makes use of a low-field magnet, so it may be wheeled into hospital rooms and take photos of the mind whereas sufferers are in mattress.
New York’s Northwell Health is utilizing a cell MRI machine for sufferers with COVID-19, says Dr. Richard Temes, the well being system’s director of neurocritical care.
Staffers at Northwell have been additionally involved in regards to the an infection danger from performing EEGs, exams that measure the mind’s electrical exercise and assist diagnose seizures, Temes mentioned. Typically, technicians spend 30 to 40 minutes in shut contact with sufferers as a way to place electrodes round their skulls.
To cut back the chance of an infection, Northwell is utilizing a scarf coated in electrodes, which might be positioned on sufferers in simply a few minutes, he mentioned.
The Brain Under Attack
“Right now, we actually don’t know enough to say definitely how COVID-19 affects the brain and nervous system,” mentioned Chou, who’s main a global research of neurological results of the virus. “Until we can answer some of the most fundamental questions, it would be too early to speculate on treatments.”
Answering these questions is sophisticated by the limited data from patient autopsies, mentioned Lena Al-Harthi, a professor and the chair of the microbial pathogens and immunity division at Rush Medical College in Chicago.
Authors of a current study from Germany discovered the novel coronavirus in sufferers’ brains.
But many neuropathologists are unwilling or unable to carry out mind autopsies, Al-Harthi mentioned.
That’s as a result of performing autopsies on sufferers who died of COVID-19 carries particular dangers, such because the aerosolization of the virus throughout mind elimination. Pathologists want specialised services and tools to conduct an post-mortem safely.
Some of the best-known signs of COVID-19 is perhaps attributable to the virus invading the brain, mentioned Dr. Robert Stevens, an affiliate professor of anesthesiology and important care medication at Johns Hopkins University.
Some of the best-known signs of COVID-19 could possibly be attributable to the virus’s invasion of nerve cells, says Dr. Robert Stevens, an affiliate professor of anesthesiology and important care medication at Johns Hopkins University.
Research exhibits that the coronavirus might enter a cell by a gateway often known as the ACE-2 receptor. These receptors are discovered not solely within the lung, but additionally on organs all through the physique, together with many components of the mind.
In a current study, Japanese researchers reported discovering the novel coronavirus within the cerebrospinal fluid that surrounds the mind and spinal wire.
Some of essentially the most stunning signs of COVID-19 ― the lack of the senses of odor and style ― stay incompletely understood, however could also be associated to the mind, Stevens mentioned.
A study from Europe printed in May discovered that 87% of sufferers with delicate or reasonable COVID-19 misplaced their sense of smell. Patients’ lack of odor couldn’t be defined by irritation or nasal congestion, the research mentioned. Stevens mentioned it’s doable that the coronavirus interacts with nerve pathways from the nose to the brain, doubtlessly affecting programs concerned with processing scent.
A new study in JAMA supplies further proof that the coronavirus invades the mind. Italian researchers discovered abnormalities in an MRI of the mind of a COVID-19 affected person who misplaced her sense of odor.
Many COVID sufferers develop “silent hypoxia,” through which they’re unaware that their oxygen ranges have plummeted dangerously low, Stevens added.
When hypoxia happens, regulatory facilities within the mind stem — which management respiration — sign to the diaphragm and the muscle groups of the chest wall to work tougher and sooner to get extra oxygen into the physique and drive out extra carbon dioxide, Stevens mentioned. The lack of this response in some sufferers with COVID-19 could indicate the brain stem is impaired.
Scientists suspect the virus is infecting the brain stem, stopping it from sending these alerts, Temes mentioned.
Well-intentioned efforts to save lots of lives can even trigger critical issues.
Many docs put sufferers who’re on mechanical ventilators right into a deep sleep to forestall them from pulling out their respiratory tubes, which might kill them, mentioned Dr. Pratik Pandharipande, chief of anesthesiology and important care medication at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee.
Both the illness itself and using sedatives may cause hallucinations, delirium and reminiscence issues, mentioned Dr. Jaspal Singh, a pulmonologist and important care specialist at Atrium Health in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Many sedated sufferers expertise terrifying hallucinations, which can return in restoration as nightmares and post-traumatic stress dysfunction.
Research exhibits 70% to 75% of patients on ventilators historically develop delirium. Delirious sufferers typically “don’t realize they’re in the hospital,” Singh mentioned. “They don’t recognize their family.”
In the French research within the New England Journal of Medicine, one-third of discharged COVID-19 sufferers suffered from “dysexecutive syndrome,” which might be characterised by inattention, disorientation or poorly organized actions in response to instructions.
Research shows that sufferers who develop delirium — which might be an early signal of mind harm — usually tend to die than others. Those who survive typically endure prolonged hospitalizations and usually tend to develop a long-term incapacity.
Under regular circumstances, hospitals would invite relations into the ICU to reassure sufferers and hold them grounded, mentioned Dr. Carla Sevin, director of the ICU Recovery Center, additionally at Vanderbilt.
Many docs now really feel pressured to prescribe heavy sedatives to COVID sufferers, says Dr. Carla Sevin, director of the ICU Recovery Center at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee.
Just permitting a member of the family to carry a affected person’s hand may help, in accordance with Dr. Lee Fleisher, chair of an American Society of Anesthesiologists committee on mind well being. Nurses usually spend appreciable time every day orienting sufferers by speaking to them, reminding them the place they’re and why they’re within the hospital.
“You can decrease the need for some of these drugs just by talking to patients and providing light touch and comfort,” Fleisher mentioned.
Hospitals have banned guests, nonetheless, to keep away from spreading the virus. That leaves COVID-19 sufferers to endure alone, although it’s well-known that isolation will increase the chance of delirium, Fleisher mentioned.
Although many hospitals supply sufferers tablets or smartphones to permit them to videoconference with household, these units present restricted consolation and companionship.
Doctors are additionally positioning sufferers with COVID-19 on their stomachs, reasonably than their backs, as a result of a susceptible place appears to assist clear the lungs and let sufferers breathe extra comfortably.
But a susceptible place additionally might be uncomfortable, in order that sufferers want extra remedy, Pandharipande mentioned.
All of those components make COVID-19 sufferers extraordinarily weak to delirium. In a current article in Critical Care, researchers mentioned the intensive care unit has turn out to be a “delirium factory.”
“The way we’re having to care for patients right now is probably contributing to more mortality and bad outcomes than the virus itself,” mentioned Dr. Sharon Inouye, a geriatrician at Harvard Medical School and Hebrew SeniorLife, a long-term care facility in Boston. “A lot of the things we’d like to do are just very difficult.”