I-TEAM: MCG study will track how COVID-19 affects your BRAIN

(Source: WRDW)
(Source: WRDW)(WRDW)
Published: May. 27, 2020 at 4:06 PM EDT
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Wednesday, May 27, 2020

News 12 at 6 O'Clock/NBC at 7

AUGUSTA, GA (WRDW/WAGT) -- Doctors at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University worry the damage done by COVID-19 could affect patients even after they've recovered from the virus.

Video from New York City shows packed ICUs overwhelmed with patients on respirators, but researchers at the Medical College of Georgia say breathing problems aren't just in your chest.

They could also be in your head.

"Some of the breathing problems may be neurogenic and from infection of the neurons in the brainstem that control your breathing," Dr. David Hess said. "That's what concerns us."

In other words, the virus attacks the part of your brain that controls breathing.

It could explain what happened to the mayor of Grovetown. Gary Jones was hospitalized after he couldn't catch his breath. Yet, he still seemed to get enough air. "The inability to breathe properly that was one of the things that was concerning me, even though oxygen level, at the lowest point in the hospital was 95 percent, so that's not bad," Jones said. Dr. Elizabeth Rutowski and Dr. David Hess are looking at that, plus they are seeing a lot of confusion in patients being admitted to AU. They're also looking into other possible problems. "The less common ones include seizures strokes," Dr. Rutkowski said. "Some people are developing nerve problems in their legs and hands." That brings us to race. The doctors say African-Americans and Asians have a much higher risk of stroke, so they are making it a point that 250 of the 500 Georgians they study are black. "I think what's different here is we'll have African-American and white patients of equal numbers. No one has that. I mean, there will be a lot of studies in Asia, but you know, there's there's racial differences in many things," Hess said. With the help of genetic epidemiologists, they'll also be able to determine if those differences are the result of their environment -- such as socioeconomic status -- or if it's truly all in the genes. No matter the cause, both doctors say they've been comparing this to other illnesses. They say they're especially worried about COVID's mortality rate and the risk of neurological disease. "That's what concerns us," Hess said. "When we go back and look at those prior pandemics, this is different, this virus." That becomes evident everywhere you look these days. Things certainly are different. As we mentioned Tuesday, they will also be following the loss of taste and smell. They plan to use scratch-and-sniff booklets and taste tests to see if it fully returns. A lot of patients like Jones say so far, it's still not what it used to be. Copyright 2020 WRDW/WAGT. All rights reserved.