Doctors are fighting not only to save lives from COVID-19, but also to protect patients' brains.
Although COVID-19 is best known for damaging the lungs, it also increases the risk of life-threatening brain injuries — from mental confusion to hallucinations, seizures, coma, stroke and paralysis. The virus may invade the brain, as well as starve the organ of oxygen by damaging the lungs. To fight the infection, the immune system sometimes overreacts, battering the brain and other organs it normally protects.
Yet the pandemic has severely limited the ability of doctors and nurses to prevent and treat neurological complications. The severity of the disease and the heightened risk of infection have forced medical teams to abandon many of the practices that help them protect patients from delirium, a common side effect of mechanical ventilators and intensive care.
And while COVID-19 increases the risk of strokes, the pandemic has made it harder to diagnose them.
When doctors suspect a stroke, they usually order a brain MRI — a sophisticated type of scan. But many patients hospitalized with COVID-19 are too sick or unstable to be wheeled across the hospital to a scanner, said Dr. Kevin Sheth, a professor of neurology and neurosurgery at the Yale School of Medicine.
Many doctors also hesitate to request MRIs for fear that patients will contaminate the scanner and infect other patients and staff members.
"Our hands are much more tied right now than before the pandemic," said Dr. Sherry Chou, an associate professor of critical care medicine, neurology and neurosurgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
In many cases, doctors can't even examine patients' reflexes and coordination because patients are so heavily sedated.
"We may not know if they've had a stroke," Sheth said.
A study from Wuhan, China — where the first COVID-19 cases were detected — found 36% of patients had neurological symptoms, including headaches, changes in consciousness, strokes and lack of muscle coordination.
A smaller, French study observed such symptoms in 84% of patients, many of which persisted after people left the hospital.
Some hospitals are trying to get around these problems by using new technology to monitor and image the brain.
New York's Northwell Health is using a mobile MRI machine for COVID patients, said Dr. Richard Temes, the health system's director of neurocritical care. The scanner uses a low-field magnet, so it can be wheeled into hospital rooms and take pictures of the brain while patients are in bed.
Staffers at Northwell were also concerned about the infection risk from performing EEGs, tests that measure the brain's electrical activity and help diagnose seizures, Temes said. Typically, technicians spend 30 to 40 minutes in close contact with patients in order to place electrodes around their skulls.
To reduce the risk of infection, Northwell is using a headband covered in electrodes, which can be placed on patients in just a couple of minutes, he said.