The COVID-19 pandemic, caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), is of a scale not seen since the 1918 influenza pandemic. Although the predominant clinical presentation is with respiratory disease, neurological manifestations are being recognised increasingly. On the basis of knowledge of other coronaviruses, especially those that caused the severe acute respiratory syndrome and Middle East respiratory syndrome epidemics, cases of CNS and peripheral nervous system disease caused by SARS-CoV-2 might be expected to be rare.
A growing number of case reports and series describe a wide array of neurological manifestations in 901 patients, but many have insufficient detail, reflecting the challenge of studying such patients. Encephalopathy has been reported for 93 patients in total, including 16 (7%) of 214 hospitalised patients with COVID-19 in Wuhan, China, and 40 (69%) of 58 patients in intensive care with COVID-19 in France. Encephalitis has been described in eight patients to date, and Guillain-Barré syndrome in 19 patients. SARS-CoV-2 has been detected in the CSF of some patients. Anosmia and ageusia are common, and can occur in the absence of other clinical features. Unexpectedly, acute cerebrovascular disease is also emerging as an important complication, with cohort studies reporting stroke in 2-6% of patients hospitalised with COVID-19. So far, 96 patients with stroke have been described, who frequently had vascular events in the context of a pro-inflammatory hypercoagulable state with elevated C-reactive protein, D-dimer, and ferritin.
Careful clinical, diagnostic, and epidemiological studies are needed to help define the manifestations and burden of neurological disease caused by SARS-CoV-2. Precise case definitions must be used to distinguish non-specific complications of severe disease (eg, hypoxic encephalopathy and critical care neuropathy) from those caused directly or indirectly by the virus, including infectious, para-infectious, and post-infectious encephalitis, hypercoagulable states leading to stroke, and acute neuropathies such as Guillain-Barré syndrome. Recognition of neurological disease associated with SARS-CoV-2 in patients whose respiratory infection is mild or asymptomatic might prove challenging, especially if the primary COVID-19 illness occurred weeks earlier. The proportion of infections leading to neurological disease will probably remain small. However, these patients might be left with severe neurological sequelae. With so many people infected, the overall number of neurological patients, and their associated health burden and social and economic costs might be large. Health-care planners and policy makers must prepare for this eventuality, while the many ongoing studies investigating neurological associations increase our knowledge base.