COVID-19 lockdown measures may have caused brain inflammation that impacts mental health, MGH study says

The study followed uninfected participants before and after lockdown measures were implemented.

Boston University COVID-19 signs in May 2021. Chris Rycroft/Wikimedia Commons

You may be rightly thankful if you have yet to contract COVID-19, or at least only had a mild case, after two years of the pandemic.

But new research from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) indicates that for some people, societal and lifestyle disruptions during the pandemic may have triggered inflammation in the brain that can affect mental health.

According to the study, this inflammation can happen regardless of whether or not you have contracted COVID-19.

A press release on the study said the goal was to gain a better understanding of the effects of the pandemic on brain and mental health.


To accomplish this, the release said, researchers analyzed brain imaging data, conducted behavioral tests, and collected blood samples from 57 uninfected volunteers before lockdown measures were put in place and 15 uninfected volunteers after lockdown measures were put in place.

After lockdowns, study participants had elevated levels of two markers of neuroinflammation in their brains — translocator protein and myoinositol — compared to pre-lockdown participants.

Researchers also found elevated levels of two inflammatory markers —interleukin-16 and monocyte chemoattractant protein-1 — in the blood of post-lockdown participants compared to pre-lockdown participants, although to a lesser extent than the brain markers.

Notably, the study found that participants who reported more severe mood, mental, and fatigue symptoms showed higher levels of translocator protein in certain brain regions compared to those reporting little or no symptoms.

“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,” lead author Ludovica Brusaferri, said in the release.

“Our study demonstrates an example of how the pandemic has impacted human health beyond the effects directly caused by the virus itself.”

Senior author Marco Loggia noted in the release that acknowledging the role of neuroinflammation in symptoms experienced by many during the pandemic might point to possible strategies to reduce 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,” he said.

Loggia added that the findings also provide support to the notion that stressful events might be accompanied by brain inflammation.

“This could have important implications for developing interventions for a broad number of stress-related disorders,” he said.


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