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Children hospitalized with COVID-19 may experience brain complications, U.K. study finds

Though children typically experience milder cases of the virus, it’s important for consumers to know the risks

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A new study conducted by researchers from the University of Liverpool explored how severe childhood cases of COVID-19 may impact brain and nerve health. 

Although severe coronavirus infections aren’t common among younger people, the researchers say their results showed that one in 20 children hospitalized with the virus experience nerve or brain-related complications. 

“The risk of a child being admitted to hospital due to COVID-19 is small, but among those hospitalized, brain and nerve complications occur in almost 4%,” said researcher Dr. Stephen Ray. “Our nationwide study confirms that children with the novel post-infection hyper-inflammatory syndrome PIMS-TS can have brain and nerve problems; but we have also identified a wide spectrum of neurological disorders in children due to COVID-19 who didn’t have PIMS-TS. These were often due to the child’s immune response after COVID-19 infection.” 

Children’s brain health and COVID-19

For the study, the researchers analyzed health outcomes from children who had been hospitalized with COVID-19 across the U.K. between April 2020, and January 2021. In that time, over 1,330 children under the age of 18 were hospitalized with the virus, and more than 50 of those children experienced brain-related complications. 

They also looked at how PIMS-TS -- pediatric inflammatory multisystem syndrome temporarily associated with SARS-CoV-2 -- played a role in children developing neurological complications following a COVID-19 infection. PIMS-TS is a severe immune response to COVID-19 that occurs in children. It typically results in prolonged symptoms like fever, fatigue, and headaches and can also affect the heart, gastrointestinal system, and kidney function. 

The researchers identified different neurological side effects in children with PIMS-TS and those without the condition. More than 50% of the hospitalized children didn’t have PIMS-TS, but they still experienced brain and nerve-related complications, including psychosis, brain inflammation, Guillain-Barré syndrome, and seizures. Children with PIMS-TS also had an increased risk of hallucinations, stroke, and changes in behavior. 

The researchers hope their study draws attention to the potential long-term complications associated with children contracting COVID-19. Their goal moving forward is to be able to better identify hospitalized children with brain and nerve complications and provide them with the best quality of care. 

“Now we appreciate the capacity for COVID-19 to cause a wide range of brain complications in those children who are hospitalized with this disease, with the potential to cause life-long disability, we desperately need research to understand the immune mechanisms which drive this,” said researcher Dr. Benedict Michael. “Most importantly -- how do we identify those children at risk and how should we treat them to prevent lasting brain injury?” 

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