COVID-19 Lockdowns Linked to Brain Inflammation and Poor Mental Health, Study Suggests

COVID-19 Lockdowns Linked to Brain Inflammation and Poor Mental Health, Study Suggests
A Florida woman in her Miami Beach home on Feb. 20, 2021, during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images)
Isabel van Brugen

Lockdowns imposed because of the COVID-19 pandemic may have caused brain inflammation among healthy adults who didn’t contract the virus, a new study from Massachusetts General Hospital suggests.

Researchers examined the societal and lifestyle disruptions caused by the pandemic and found that healthy adults without COVID-19 had higher brain and blood levels of various markers of inflammation after the lockdowns, compared with their average levels before the lockdowns.

These disruptions “may have triggered inflammation in the brain that can affect mental health,” they wrote.

The authors of the study, which was published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, noted that since the onset of the pandemic in early 2020, the severity and prevalence of symptoms of psychological distress, fatigue, brain fog, and other conditions have increased considerably in the United States.

Scientists conducted behavioral tests and collected blood samples from dozens of volunteers who hadn’t previously been infected with COVID-19, both before and after the lockdowns were rolled out as part of measures aimed to curb the transmission of the disease.

Study participants who reported greater symptoms related to mood and mental and physical fatigue had elevated levels of inflammatory markers in their brains, the researchers noted.

Higher brain levels of two markers of neuroinflammation—translocator protein and myoinositol—were seen in study participants post-lockdown, compared with before the lockdowns.

Similarly, post-lockdown participants demonstrated elevated blood levels of two inflammatory markers—interleukin-16 and monocyte chemoattractant protein-1—although, to a lesser extent, according to the researchers.

The authors of the study, backed by the National Institutes of Health and The Landreth Family Foundation, suggested that their findings lend credibility to the idea that brain inflammation can be triggered by stressful events.

“This could have important implication for developing interventions for a broad number of stress-related disorders,” said senior author Marco L. Loggia, a doctoral candidate and co-director of the Center for Integrative Pain NeuroImaging at Massachusetts General Hospital.

He said that acknowledging the role of neuroinflammation in the symptoms experienced by many during the COVID-19 pandemic might point to possible strategies to alleviate them.

“For instance, behavioral or pharmacological interventions that are thought to reduce inflammation—such as exercise and certain medications—might turn out to be helpful as a means of reducing these vexing symptoms,” Loggia said.

Lead author Ludovica Brusaferri, a postdoctoral research fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, suggested that the effects of lockdowns need further research.

“While COVID-19 research has seen an explosion in the literature, the impact of pandemic-related societal and lifestyle disruptions on brain health among the uninfected has remained under-explored,” Brusaferri said. “Our study demonstrates an example of how the pandemic has impacted human health beyond the effects directly caused by the virus itself.”

A separate study conducted during the onset of the pandemic that analyzed survey data from 1,441 U.S. adult participants, found that symptoms of depression were three times higher during the lockdowns than they were before the lockdowns.

The study was conducted from March 31, 2020, to April 13, 2020, and found that participants with lower social resources, lower economic resources, and greater exposure to stressors reported a greater burden of depression symptoms.

Isabel van Brugen is an award-winning journalist. She holds a master's in newspaper journalism from City, University of London.
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