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COVID-19 lockdown measures may affect brain health of people who aren’t infected, MGH study shows

The main entrance of Mass. General HospitalErin Clark/Globe Staff

Lockdown measures aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19 may have an adverse effect on the brain health even of people who’ve avoided infection during the pandemic, according to a new study from researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital.

The study, the hospital said Tuesday in a statement, was published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity.

Researchers found that following lockdowns, study participants demonstrated “elevated brain levels” of markers of neuroinflammation, compared to pre-lockdown participants, according to MGH.

One of those markers, the statement said, is known as a translocator protein, and participants who reported “a higher burden of symptoms related to mood and mental and physical fatigue showed higher levels of translocator protein in certain brain regions,” compared to people reporting little or no symptoms.

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Researchers arrived at their findings by analyzing brain imaging data, conducting behavioral tests, and collecting blood samples from 57 uninfected volunteers before lockdown measures and from 15 after such measures were implemented, the statement said.

“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,” said the study’s lead author, Ludovica Brusaferri, a postdoctoral research fellow at MGH and Harvard Medical School, in the statement.

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

Another senior author of the study, Marco L. Loggia, co-director of the Center for Integrative Pain NeuroImaging at MGH and Harvard Medical School, said acknowledging the role of neuroinflammation in many peoples during the pandemic could lead to possible mitigation strategies.

”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.

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The issue is a pressing one, according to the abstract of the study, which cited a “a global increase” amid the pandemic “of fatigue, brain fog, depression and other ‘sickness behavior’-like symptoms,” even among the uninfected.

The abstract said future studies “will be needed to corroborate and further interpret” the preliminary findings.

Public health specialists have monitored mental health concerns throughout the pandemic, which has been marked by periods of prolonged isolation, job loss, deaths of loved ones, and other severe stressors for countless people.

Thomas Laudate, a clinical neuropsychologist at Tufts Medical Center who was not involved in the study, said he was interested to see research into the brains of people who have not had COVID but were still affected by the pandemic in a tangible way.

“Even if you don’t have COVID, these stressors are powerful stressors for a lot of people,” Laudate said. “This study is showing that they can really make measurable changes in our brains. It appears that those things are reflective of the stress that we’re all going through. And being aware of that can be helpful.”

The brain fogginess, depression, and fatigue are things his patients have been reporting more frequently, he said.

“Those are certainly things that we see in clinic here, more so than in the past,” Laudate said. “People are stressed, and people feel more anxious, and people feel more depressed, and often feel fatigued.”

Though these conditions are common, people should consider seeing a doctor or therapist if they are interfering with their day-to-day lives. Often, he said, people are experiencing stress in isolation, unaware that it’s not all in their heads and they should be able to cope on their own. But getting help, through talk therapy or medication or other interventions, can go a long way in managing symptoms, he said.

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Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Gal Tziperman Lotan is a former Globe staff member.