Patients with encephalopathy more likely to develop severe COVID-19

June 23, 2021

A new University of Florida study suggests that patients with COVID-19 who displayed symptoms of disorientation and confusion were three times more likely to go on to develop severe COVID-19 than patients with the virus who did not experience neurological symptoms, according to a news release from UF Health.

David Marra, PhD, Postdoctoral Researcher in the Department of Clinical and Health Psychology at the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions, part of UF Health, the university’s academic health center, said, “What we found was that certain brain symptoms, specifically a condition known as encephalopathy, may be an early marker of more severe COVID-19. We hope this might equip front-line workers and other health care providers with information to help them be on the lookout for a more severe disease course.”

The findings, which appear in Critical Care Explorations, are based on electronic health records from five Florida hospitals of more than 36,600 patients with COVID-19, 12% of whom developed severe COVID-19. The data were made available through the OneFlorida Clinical Research Consortium.

The researchers also found that, consistent with other national patterns, patients with loss of smell and loss of taste were less likely to develop severe COVID-19. Encephalopathy symptoms were typically seen a few days before or concurrent with the disease progressing to a serious stage requiring intensive treatment, such as admission to the ICU or ventilation.

Spotting signs of encephalopathy in patients with COVID-19 could help physicians initiate therapy much earlier, potentially preventing severe disease, the researchers say.

Early in the pandemic, experts believed that neurological issues in patients with COVID-19 were caused by the virus entering the brain. Scientists now know that when the body mounts a large inflammatory response to the virus — the same process associated with long COVID — brain function can be affected.

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