New research finds COVID-19 may trigger Guillain-Barré syndrome

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A novel coronavirus (COVID-19) infection may prompt Guillain-Barré syndrome, according to new research published in the journal Brain.

Guillain-Barré syndrome is an autoimmune disorder in which a person's immune system attacks the nerves, causing muscle weakness and occasionally paralysis. The disease can last for weeks or several years. In the United States, only 3,000 to 6,000 people develop the condition every year, but can be severe.

The condition is triggered by an acute bacterial or viral infection. Since the beginning of the pandemic, doctors have reported over 90 Guillain-Barré diagnoses following a possible COVID-19 infection. However, whether COVID-19 is another potential infectious trigger or whether the reported cases are coincidental is unclear.

Using an international collection of Guillain-Barré syndrome patients known as the International GBS Outcome Study (or IGOS), researchers studied patients from January 30, 2020 until May 30, 2020. Some  49 Guillain-Barré syndrome patients were added to the study during this period from China, Denmark, France, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

In this cohort study, 22 percent of the Guillain-Barré syndrome patients included during the first four months of the pandemic had a preceding COVID-19 infection. These patients were all over 50 years of age and patients frequently (65 percent) experienced facial palsy (64 percent) and had a demyelination form of GBS. At hospital admission, 73 percent of the Guillain-Barré patients with a COVID-19 infection had increased inflammatory markers. All these patients fulfilled the diagnostic criteria for both Guillain-Barré syndrome and COVID-19, according to the study.

The researchers said that they did not find more patients diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome during the first four months of the pandemic compared to previous years. They said this suggests that while a strong association between a COVID-19 infection and Guillain-Barré syndrome is not likely, a COVID-19 infection may sometimes lead patients to develop Guillain-Barré syndrome.

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