SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) — The cases of three teenagers who developed serious mental problems after being infected with COVID-19 have led to a new area of research at UCSF and other institutions. Researchers are now focusing on whether the coronavirus can cause psychosis in young people.

“We’re just trying to develop a story that in addition to happening in the rest of the body, whether it could also be affecting the brain,” said Dr. Michael Wilson.

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Dr. Wilson said that out of 18 teenage COVID patients in 2020, three also had severe mental problems.

“It was a really abrupt onset of symptoms,” said Dr. Wilson. “Obsessive behaviors, delusions, paranoia. And it was really those symptoms that brought them into the hospital.”

Wilson says the patients had minor to no respiratory symptoms of COVID-19, but the timing and speed of the mental problems was suspicious.

“We knew that they were infected, and the doctors who treated them in the hospital wondered could their psychiatric symptoms have been triggered or exacerbated by this recent viral infection.”

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The three patients underwent spinal taps which revealed unusual antibody activity in their spinal fluid.

“There were some subtle markers of inflammation in these patients that said something was going on, but not what the cause was,” Dr. Wilson said.

Lab research suggested that the virus could have infected the patient’s central nervous system. And antibodies, which normally attack invaders, were attacking the brain.

“We found in two of the three children, we found auto immunity affecting the self proteins in the spinal fluid.”

Dr. Wilson said the sample size of three patients is too small to make any conclusions, but could the developing brains of teenagers be slightly more susceptible to the virus?

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It’s a question researchers at UCSF and elsewhere are now focused on answering. Wilson said the three patients are still being treated for their mental conditions.