An analysis of hospitalized patients with COVID-19 finds that those with no history of epilepsy had more than 3 times the odds of suffering a new-onset seizure than patients with epilepsy were to have breakthrough seizures (odds radio [OR] 3.15, P < .0001), researchers reported at the annual meeting of the American Epilepsy Society.
study lead author Neeraj Singh, MD, a neurologist at the New York-based Northwell Health system, said in an interview. “That’s new. We don’t normally see that when someone has a bacterial or viral infection. It’s demonstrating that this infection is having direct effect on the brain and brain signals.”
According to Dr. Singh, there’s little data about seizures in patients with COVID-19 because doctors have focused on other symptoms. A 2021 multicenter study found that electrographic seizures were detected in 9.6% of 197 patients with COVID-19 who were referred for cEEG.
For the new study, Dr. Singh and a colleague tracked 917 patients with COVID-19 in the Northwell Health system who were treated from Feb. 14 to June 14, 2020, with antiepileptic medication. Of the patients, 451 had a history of epilepsy, and 466 did not.
According to Dr. Singh, 27.6% of the patients without a history of epilepsy had new-onset seizures, while 10.1% of the patients with history of epilepsy had breakthrough seizures. The difference in odds was more than threefold after adjustment. (Among all COVID-19 patients, he said, perhaps 8%-16% had seizures).
The researchers also found that patients with new-onset seizures stayed in the hospital much longer (average, 26.9 days) than any patients with a known history of epilepsy (12.8 days, P < .0001, for those who had breakthrough seizures and 10.9 days, P < .0001, for those who didn’t).
In addition, the researchers found that having any seizures – new-onset or breakthrough – was linked to higher risk of death (OR 1.41, P = .03).
Antiseizure medications are key treatments for these patients, Dr. Singh said. As for the patients with new-onset seizures who recover from COVID-19, Dr. Singh said, “it’s suspected that these people are going to have a new diagnosis of epilepsy, not just a one-time seizure.”
The findings suggest that some patients with epilepsy are protected against COVID-19-related seizures because they take antiepileptic medications that “protect the brain from getting a trigger for an abnormal signal that leads to a seizure,” he said. “That’s one possibility.”
What can neurologists learn from the study? Dr. Singh recommends a “lower threshold” to recommend or approve EEGs in patients with COVID-19 who are confused/altered when they come in, especially if this is not normal. “They may actually be having silent seizures that no one’s noticing,” he said.
No study funding was reported. The authors reported no relevant disclosures.