First Presumptive Case of Encephalitis Linked to COVID-19 Reported

Megan Brooks

April 03, 2020

Clinicians from Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, Michigan, have reported the first presumptive case of acute necrotizing hemorrhagic encephalopathy associated with COVID-19.

"As the number of patients with COVID-19 increases worldwide, clinicians and radiologists should be watching for this presentation among patients presenting with COVID-19 and altered mental status," the clinicians advise in a report published online March 31 in Radiology.

"This is significant for all providers to be aware of and looking out for in [COVID-19] patients who present with an altered level of consciousness. This complication is as devastating as severe lung disease," Elissa Fory, MD, a neurologist with Henry Ford who was part of the team of medical experts that made the diagnosis, said in a statement.

"We need to be thinking of how we're going to incorporate patients with severe neurological disease into our treatment paradigm," Fory added.

Brent Griffith, MD, radiologist with Henry Ford and senior author of the case report, said the case shows "the important role that imaging can play in COVID-19 cases."

Diagnosed via Neuroimaging

The 58-year-old woman presented with a 3-day history of fever, cough, and muscle aches ― symptoms consistent with COVID-19. She was transported by ambulance to the emergency department and showed signs of confusion, lethargy, and disorientation.

The woman tested negative for influenza, but a rapid COVID-19 test confirmed severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV- 2) infection. She was later diagnosed with acute hemorrhagic necrotizing encephalopathy.

"The team had suspected encephalitis at the outset, but then back-to-back CT and MRI scans made the diagnosis," Fory said in the statement.

Noncontrast head CT revealed "symmetric hypoattenuation within the bilateral medial thalami with a normal CT angiogram and CT venogram," the team reports in their article. Brain MRI showed "hemorrhagic rim enhancing lesions within the bilateral thalami, medial temporal lobes, and subinsular regions."

The patient was started on intravenous immunoglobulin but not high-dose steroids, because of concern for respiratory compromise. As of April 1, the patient was hospitalized in serious condition. Henry Ford Hospital has not provided an update.

Acute necrotizing encephalopathy (ANE) is a rare complication of viral infections, but until now, it has not been known to have occurred as a result of COVID-19 infection. ANE has been associated with intracranial "cytokine storms," and a recent report in the Lancet suggested that a subgroup of patients with severe COVID-19 might develop a cytokine storm syndrome.

Commenting for Medscape Medical News, Cyrus A. Raji, MD, PhD, assistant professor of radiology and neurology, Washington University in St. Louis, Missoui, said, "Since this is just one report of one patient, the findings are the most preliminary we can conceive, and more research is needed to determine the extent to which COVID-19 may affect the central nervous system."

Fory, Griffith, and Raji have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Radiology. Published online March 31, 2020. Full text

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