Pandemic stress may lead to brain inflammation, Harvard research hints

Pandemic-related stress brought on by societal and lifestyle disruptions may lead to brain inflammation  — even among those not infected with COVID-19, according to early findings from researchers at Cambridge, Mass.-based Harvard University. 

To conduct the study, researchers from Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston gathered information from 57 noninfected people before lockdowns/stay-at-home measures, and from 15 people after such measures were implemented. They analyzed brain-imaging data, blood samples and behavioral tests. 

Brain-imaging scans showed elevated levels of two neuroinflammatory markers — translocator protein and myoinositol — among those examined after lockdowns, compared to those tested before pandemic restrictions were in place, according to the preliminary findings published Feb. 19 in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity

Researchers also found higher levels of translocator protein in certain regions of the brain among those experiencing a higher burden of symptoms related to mood, mental or physical fatigue, compared to those who reported fewer or no symptoms. 

"While COVID-19 research has seen an explosion in the literature, the impact of the pandemic-related societal and lifestyle disruptions on brain health among the uninfected has remained underexplored," said Ludovicia Brusaferri, PhD, lead study author and Harvard Medical School postdoctoral research fellow in radiology at Mass General, adding that the study is "an example of how the pandemic has impacted human health beyond the effects directly caused by the virus itself."


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