The virus that causes Covid-19 first attacks cells in the respiratory system, often leading to an inflammation of the lungs that puts people at risk of contracting pneumonia. But the virus' impact has also been felt in other systems of the body.
"Covid-19's effects extend far beyond the chest," said study lead author Colbey W Freeman from the University of Pennsylvania in the US.
"While complications in the brain are rare, they are an increasingly reported and potentially devastating consequence of Covid-19 infection," Freeman added.
To learn more about the phenomenon, the research team looked at COVID-19 patients who underwent head CT and MRI in their health system from January to April 2020.
Of the 1,357 patients with COVID-19 admitted to the system in those four months, 81 had a brain scan performed.
The most common reasons for the brain scans were altered mental state and focal neurologic deficits such as speech and vision problems.
Out of 81 patients with brain scans, 18, or just over one in five, had findings that were considered an emergency or critical, including strokes, brain bleeds and blocked blood vessels.
At least half the patients had pre-existing histories of high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. Three patients with emergent/critical findings died while admitted.
"Covis-19 is associated with neurologic manifestations, and hypertension and type 2 diabetes mellitus are common in individuals who develop these manifestations," Freeman said.
"These populations may be at higher risk for neurologic complications and should be monitored closely," Freeman added.
Two-thirds of the patients with critical results in the study were African American, suggesting that these patients also may require closer monitoring.
The exact mechanisms for Covid-19's harmful neurological effects are not known and may involve multiple factors, although a popular theory holds that inflammation associated with the infection is the primary culprit.
In the study, blood markers of inflammation were high in people with critical results.
"When your body is in an inflammatory state, it produces all these molecules called cytokines to help recruit the immune system to perform its function," Freeman said.
"Unfortunately, if cytokines are overproduced, the immune response actually starts doing damage," the researcher noted.