Doctors Find Brain Damage in Children With Mystery Syndrome Connected to Covid-19

Photo: Bruce Bennett, Getty Images
Photo: Bruce Bennett, Getty Images

New research this week describes some of the harrowing and possibly long-term neurological complications that can happen in children who develop a mysterious condition linked to covid-19. They can suffer everything from headaches to muscle weakness, along with visible signs of damage to the brain.

The study, published in JAMA Neurology on Wednesday, looks at the cases of children with the mystery condition, now commonly known as multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, or MIS-C.

MIS-C is a rare but potentially life-threatening occurrence that arises during or soon after infection with the coronavirus that causes covid-19. Its symptoms can affect the whole body, including fever, skin rashes, breathing problems, and a sudden drop in blood pressure (shock) that can deprive organs of oxygen and lead to death. The syndrome is likely the result of a flawed immune response to the virus, rather than symptoms caused directly by the infection.

In this study, the researchers identified 27 children suffering from symptoms consistent with MIS-C. Of these, four also had neurological symptoms. They included headaches, neck stiffness, sensitivity to light, and trouble speaking, swallowing, and walking. Those four children also experienced muscle weakness and two had reduced reflexes. In tests, there was evidence of damage to the brain’s corpus callosum, the region that helps the two sides of the brain communicate with one another. Interestingly, none of the children reported respiratory symptoms, despite all testing positive for the coronavirus or having antibodies to it.

“Children with covid-19 may present with new neurological symptoms involving both the central and peripheral nervous system,” the authors wrote. They also cautioned that doctors should consider the possibility of covid-19 in children with neurological symptoms and damage to the splenium of the corpus callosum (the thickest part of the brain structure), even if they don’t have typical respiratory symptoms.

Most children who contract the coronavirus do not develop serious symptoms and are less likely to have the sort of flu-like symptoms seen in adults. MIS-C is considered to be rare and treatable through existing anti-inflammatory drugs, especially if caught early. But right now, we have no real sense of how often it happens, why some children develop it, or how to prevent it. It’s not just children who have to worry about neurological problems connected to covid-19, either; some adults have also had similar complications during or post-infection. How many survivors will have to live with lingering neurological or other health problems is an unanswered question.

In the study, all four children needed intensive care after developing shock and were placed on mechanical ventilation. While two of the children recovered fully, two still needed the assistance of a wheelchair due to lower limb weakness at the time the study ended.