COVID-19 could trigger a potentially fatal brain disorder in some people, researchers have said.

A trial conducted by a team from University College London (UCL) has found evidence to suggest the virus can cause a type of brain inflammation.

The condition, acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (Adem), has some similarities with multiple sclerosis. However, it is more severe and can leave people with a long-term disability. In some cases though, people have made a full recovery.

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Before the pandemic, the neurology dept at UCL would see about one Adem case a month, but during April and May numbers increased to between two to three each week.

Senior study author Dr Michael Zandi, from UCL Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said: “We’re seeing things in the way COVID-19 affects the brain that we haven’t seen before with other viruses.

“What we’ve seen with some of these Adem patients, and in other patients, is you can have severe neurology, you can be quite sick, but actually have trivial lung disease.”

The trial included more than 40 people with COVID-19, who had also developed brain complications.

Of those participants, 12 experienced inflammation of the central nervous system, 10 had brain disease with delirium or psychosis, eight had strokes and a further eight had peripheral nerve problems.

These findings provide further evidence that some people who become ill with coronavirus could develop long-term health concerns.

Dr Zandi is urging healthcare professionals around the world to be “alert” to cognitive symptoms such as memory loss, fatigue, numbness and weakness.

He added: “The message is not to put that all down to the recovery, and the psychological aspects of recovery. The brain does appear to be involved in this illness.”

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Joint first author Dr Ross Paterson, from UCL’s Queen Square Institute of Neurology, said: “Given that the disease has only been around for a matter of months, we might not yet know what long-term damage COVID-19 can cause.

“Doctors needs to be aware of possible neurological effects, as early diagnosis can improve patient outcomes. People recovering from the virus should seek professional health advice if they experience neurological symptoms.”

The study has been published in the Brain journal.

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