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Emory investigates how COVID-19 affects the brain

Emory University
Featured Image: (L-R) Barbara Johnson, Elizabeth Matthews and Mikisha Johnson. When Elizabeth Matthews (center, pictured with daughter Barbara Johnson, left, and Mikisha Johnson, right) had a stroke, doctors discovered she also had COVID-19. From strokes to mental health, the Emory Brain Health Center is leading research on the neurological effects of the pandemic.

By Emory University

Mikisha Johnson hung up the phone. On the call, her 83-year-old grandmother, Elizabeth Matthews, had struggled to string words together and sounded disoriented. 

“Grandmama doesn’t sound right,” Mikisha told her mother, Barbara.

When Barbara Johnson arrived the following morning at her parents’ home in the southwest Atlanta neighborhood of Collier Heights, her mother didn’t look right either.

“I said ‘Mama, you’re slurring your words, your mouth is twisted and your hand is trembling,’” Barbara Johnson said. “‘You are going to the hospital.’”

Elizabeth Matthews already had a pretty good idea what was wrong, but she didn’t want to worry her daughter.

“I said to my husband, ‘I believe I had a stroke,’” she recalled.

She was right. But that wasn’t all. At that visit in early August, doctors at Emory St. Joseph’s Hospital told Matthews she’d also tested positive for COVID-19.

“I got real emotional when they told me that,” Matthews said. “I was thinking, ‘Am I going to die?’”

Since the COVID-19 outbreak began late last year, it has largely been understood as an assault on the respiratory system. Telltale symptoms are often a fever, hacking cough and difficulty breathing; patients in the worst shape end up on respirators.

What is still less understood, but just as alarming, is the damage the virus may be doing to the brain, from strokes like Matthews’ to reports of headaches, seizures and confusion. And that doesn’t even take into account the staggering toll of the pandemic on our mental health.

Today, more than 300 studies from around the world have looked at links between neurological problems and COVID-19. More are underway. 

“We are now recognizing COVID-19 disease actually has a significant neurological implication or neurologic effect,” said Byron Milton III, MD, a physiatrist, or physical medicine and rehabilitation doctor, at Emory University Hospital who has helped COVID patients cope with dementia-like symptoms and other neurological problems.

(L-R) Barbara Johnson, Elizabeth Matthews and Mikisha Johnson. Elizabeth Matthews (center, with daughter Barbara Johnson, left, and granddaughter Mikisha Johnson, right) battled back from stroke and COVID-19. She’s looking forward to a new grandchild, due in late September.

Even as they care for patients, researchers and health care providers at the Emory Brain Health Center are among those leading the way toward understanding the short- and long-term neurological implications of the pandemic on the brain and the mind.

Those efforts are featured in Season 2 of the “Your Fantastic Mind” television series from Georgia Public Broadcasting and Emory University, which debuted Sept. 9 and continues through Oct. 14. 

“One of the things that really sets Emory apart is the multi-disciplinary way the Brain Health Center works,” said Jonathan Lewin, MD, Emory’s executive vice president for health affairs and executive director of the Woodruff Health Sciences Center.

“Emory combines neurology, psychiatry and behavioral sciences, neurosurgery, rehabilitation medicine and sleep medicine. That’s proving to have a real benefit during this pandemic, where we’re learning so much about the virus every day and the ways it can impact us in ways we might not expect.”

Read the full story at news.emory.edu >>

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