How COVID-19 can damage the brain
The woman had seen lions and monkeys in her house. She was becoming disoriented and aggressive towards others, and was convinced that her husband was an impostor. She was in her mid-50s — decades older than the age at which psychosis typically develops — and had no psychiatric history. What she did have, however, was COVID-19. Hers was one of the first known cases of someone developing psychosis after contracting the disease1.
In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, doctors struggled to keep patients breathing, and focused mainly on treating damage to the lungs and circulatory system. But even then, evidence for neurological effects was accumulating. Some people hospitalized with COVID-19 were experiencing delirium: they were confused, disorientated and agitated2. In April, a group in Japan published3 the first report of someone with COVID-19 who had swelling and inflammation in brain tissues. Another report4 described a patient with deterioration of myelin, a fatty coating that protects neurons and is irreversibly damaged in neurodegenerative diseases such as multiple sclerosis.
“The neurological symptoms are only becoming more and more scary,” says Alysson Muotri, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, in La Jolla.