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Pandemic-related Stressors May Impact Brain Health of Uninfected Individuals

In This Article

  • Although there has been a vast amount of COVID-19 research published in the last two years, the lifestyle and societal effects of the pandemic on uninfected individuals remains underexplored
  • Massachusetts General Hospital researchers recently explored the effects of pandemic-related stressors on the brain health of uninfected individuals
  • Their findings suggest that COVID-19-related disruptions may trigger brain inflammation and impact mental health, even in those who were not infected with the virus

The effects of societal and lifestyle disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have been underexplored regarding their impact on uninfected individuals. A team of researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital recently conducted a study to better understand how the pandemic has affected brain and mental health.

The team, led by Marco L. Loggia, PhD, co-director of the Center for Integrative Pain NeuroImaging at Mass General, and Ludovica Brusaferri, PhD, postdoctoral research fellow, published their findings in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity.

The study analyzed multiple volunteers who were not infected with COVID-19—57 before and 15 after stay-at-home measures were put in place to limit the spread. The researchers utilized brain imaging data, behavioral tests and blood samples to analyze the participants' brain health pre- and post-lockdown.

Post-lockdown participants demonstrated elevated brain levels of two markers of neuroinflammation when compared to participants measured at pre-lockdown levels. These markers include translocator protein, measured via positron emission tomography, and myoinositol, measured via magnetic resonance spectroscopy. Also elevated in post-lockdown participants, but to a lesser extent, were blood levels of two inflammatory markers—interleukin-16 and monocyte chemoattractant protein-1.

Translator protein levels were higher in certain brain regions for participants who reported a higher burden of symptoms related to mood and mental and physical fatigue when compared to participants who reported little or no symptoms. Those increased translator protein post-lockdown levels correlated with the expression of several genes involved in immune functions.

These findings further indicate that brain inflammation may accompany stressful events, highlighting the need to develop interventions for stress-related disorders. Behavioral or pharmacologic interventions thought to reduce inflammation, such as exercise or medication, are possible strategies to reduce brain and mental health symptoms post-lockdown.

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