Scientists have found a possible explanation for the mental sluggishness that often follows the disease.
In collaboration with the University of Amsterdam, researchers at the University of Birmingham have found a possible explanation for the mental sluggishness that often accompanies disease.
An approximately 12 M citizens of the United Kingdom have a chronic medical condition, and many report severe mental fatigue that they describe as ‘ sluggishness ‘ or ‘ brain fog. ‘
Often this condition is as debilitating as the illness itself.
A group at the Centre for Human Brain Health at the University explored the link between this mental fog and inflammation, the response of the body to the disease.
They demonstrate, in a study published in Neuroimage, that inflammation seems to have a particular negative impact on the readiness of the brain to enter and maintain an alert state.
The study’s senior authors are Dr. Ali Mazaheri and Professor Jane Raymond of the Centre for Human Brain Health at the University.
Dr Mazaheri is stating:”Scientists have long suspected a link between inflammation and cognition, but it is very difficult to be clear about the cause and effect. For example, people living with a medical condition or being very overweight might complain of cognitive impairment, but it’s hard to tell if that’s due to the inflammation associated with these conditions or if there are other reasons.”
“Our research has identified a specific critical process within the brain that is clearly affected when inflammation is present.”
The research focused specifically on a visual attention area of the brain. A group of 20 young male volunteers participated and received a vaccine for salmonella typhoid that causes temporary inflammation but has few other side effects.
A few hours after the injection, they were tested for cognitive responses to simple images on a computer screen to measure their ability to control attention. Brain activity was measured while the attention tests were conducted.
They received an injection with water “a placebo” on a different day, either before or after, and performed the same attention tests.
They were unaware of what injection they had received on each test day. A state of inflammation was measured every day by analyzing blood taken on each day.
The tests used in the study evaluated three separate processes of attention, each involving separate parts of the brain. These are the following processes:
“Alerting” which involves reaching and maintaining an alert state; “orienting” in which valuable sensory information is selected and prioritized; And “executive control” was used to resolve what to pay attention to when there is conflicting information available.
Results showed that inflammation directly affected brain activity associated with staying alert while inflammation did not appear to affect the other attention processes.
“These results show very clearly that inflammation affects a very specific part of the brain network,” says Dr Mazaheri. “This could explain ‘brain fog’.”
“This research finding is major step forward in understanding the links between physical, cognitive, and mental health and tells us that even the mildest of illnesses may reduce alertness.” Says Professor Raymond.
“In addition, subtle changes in brain function can be used in patients with inflammatory diseases as an early marker of cognitive deterioration.”
The next step for the team will be to test the inflammation effects on other functional areas of the brain such as memory.


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