Even in people who were never infected with SARS-CoV-2, new research suggests that lifestyle changes during the COVID-19 pandemic may have caused inflammation in the brain, contributing to fatigue, concentration difficulties, and depression. The study was published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity by a team led by investigators at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Aside from causing a staggering number of infections and deaths, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant social and economic disruptions, affecting the lives of a large portion of the world’s population in a variety of ways. Furthermore, the severity and prevalence of symptoms of psychological distress, fatigue, brain fog, and other conditions have increased significantly in the United States since the start of the pandemic, including among people who have not been infected with SARS-CoV-2. Researchers analyzed brain imaging data, conducted behavioral tests, and collected blood samples from multiple uninfected volunteers — 57 before and 15 after lockdown/stay-at-home measures were implemented to limit the pandemic’s spread — to gain a better understanding of the effects of the pandemic on the brain and mental health.
When compared to pre-lockdown participants, post-lockdown participants had higher levels of two neuroinflammation markers in their brains: translocator protein (measured using positron emission tomography) and myoinositol (measured using magnetic resonance spectroscopy). Blood levels of two inflammatory markers, interleukin-16 and monocyte chemoattractant protein-1, were also higher in post-lockdown participants, albeit to a lesser extent. Participants who reported a greater burden of symptoms related to mood and mental and physical fatigue had higher levels of translocator protein in specific brain regions than those who reported little or no symptoms.
Furthermore, higher levels of post-lockdown translocator protein correlated with the expression of several immune-related genes.” While COVID-19 research has exploded in the literature,” says lead author Ludovica Brusaferri, a postdoctoral research fellow at MGH and Harvard Medical School, “the impact of pandemic-related societal and lifestyle disruptions on brain health among the uninfected has remained under-explored.”
“Our research shows how the pandemic has impacted human health in ways other than those directly caused by the virus.”Senior author Marco L. Loggia, co-director of the Center for Integrative Pain NeuroImaging at MGH and Harvard Medical School, notes that recognizing a role for neuroinflammation in the symptoms experienced by many during the pandemic may point to potential treatment strategies.
“For example, behavioral or pharmacological interventions thought to reduce inflammation — such as exercise and certain medications — may turn out to be helpful in reducing these vexing symptoms,” Loggia adds that the findings lend credence to the idea that stressful events may be accompanied by brain inflammation. “This has significant implications for developing interventions for a wide range of stress-related disorders,” he says.Co-authors of the study include Zeynab Alshelh, Daniel Martins, Minhae Kim, Akila Weerasekera, Hope Housman, Erin J. Morrissey, Paulina C. Knight, Kelly A. Castro-Blanco, Daniel S. Albrecht, Chieh-En Tseng, Nicole R. Zürcher, Eva-Maria Ratai, Oluwaseun Akeju, Meena M. Makary,