Alarming New COVID Symptom: Brain-Eating Disease

Scientists say a rapidly developing neurodegenerative disorder may be a new COVID symptom after a man infected with the virus died.

A paper in the American Journal of Case Reports describes the case of a 62-year-old man who was admitted to the Mount Sinai Queens Hospital Center with rapidly progressive dementia, difficulty walking, and uncontrollable quick jerking movement. On admission, he also tested positive for COVID-19.

All workup results were negative, and MRI brain scan results were not revealing. However, he tested positive for CSF protein 14-3-3, a marker associated with prion disease (PrD), one of the rapidly progressive dementias. The patient continued to deteriorate and died due to the rapid progression of his condition.

"Our case demonstrates the potential correlation of COVID with neurodegenerative conditions, especially prion disorders. While such cases are highly likely to be due to COVID-19, there is no definite evidence beyond coincidental findings," the report authors conclude.

Viral infections often play a role in neurodegenerative conditions. Previous evidence shows that COVID-19 can also result in neurologic manifestations. For example, the infection may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Prion diseases are a family of rare progressive neurodegenerative disorders affecting humans and animals. These diseases are thought to be caused by prions — abnormal, pathogenic agents that are transmissible. They can trigger specific normal cellular proteins called prion proteins found in the brain to fold abnormally, resulting in brain damage.

Acquired human prion diseases are rare. A common outside source is medical procedures, where an individual may be exposed to the abnormal prion protein via contaminated equipment or certain transplanted human tissues. The disease can also be acquired by ingesting meat from cattle infected with "mad cow disease."

The authors note that future studies might be required to determine whether prion disease is the new COVID symptom.

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