A new study published in the journal Neuroimage shows that inflammation may be responsible for the mental sluggishness that often accompanies illness.

Many people who struggle with chronic illness report severe mental fatigue that they often describe as “brain fog” or “sluggishness.” This condition can be as debilitating as the disease itself.

For the study, a research team from the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Human Brain Health investigated the link between this mental fog and inflammation, the body’s response to illness. They found that inflammation appears to have a specific negative effect on the brain’s readiness to reach and maintain an alert state.

“Scientists have long suspected a link between inflammation and cognition, but it is very difficult to be clear about the cause and effect,” said senior author Dr. Ali Mazaheri.

“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 researchers focused specifically on an area of the brain linked to visual attention. A group of 20 young male volunteers took part and received a salmonella typhoid vaccine that causes temporary inflammation but has few other side effects.

The participants were tested for cognitive responses to simple images on a computer screen a few hours after the injection so that their ability to control attention could be measured. Brain activity was measured while they performed the attention tests.

On a different day, either before or after, they received an injection with water (a placebo) and completed the same attention tests. On each test day they were unaware of which injection they had received. Their inflammation state was measured by analyzing blood taken on each day.

The tests used in the study assessed three separate attention processes, each involving distinct parts of the brain. These processes are: “alerting” which involves reaching and maintaining an alert state; “orienting” which involves selecting and prioritizing useful sensory information; and “executive control” used to resolving what to pay attention to when available information is conflicting.

The results show that inflammation specifically affected brain activity related to staying alert, while the other attention processes appeared unaffected by inflammation.

“These results show quite clearly that there’s a very specific part of the brain network that’s affected by inflammation,” says Mazaheri. “This could explain ‘brain fog’.”

“This research finding is [a] 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,” said senior author Professor Jane Raymond.

The next step for the team will be to test the effects of inflammation on other areas of brain function such as memory.

“Getting a better understanding of the relationships between inflammation and brain function will help us investigate other ways to treat some of these conditions,” said first author Dr. Leonie Balter, who completed the research as part of her Ph.D.

“For example, further research might show that patients with conditions associated with chronic inflammation, such as obesity, kidney disease or Alzheimer’s, could benefit from taking anti-inflammatory drugs to help preserve or improve cognitive function.”

“Furthermore, subtle changes in brain function may be used as an early marker of cognitive deterioration in patients with inflammatory diseases.”

Source: University of Birmingham