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Pandemic Brain

According to new research from Harvard Medical School, the stress of isolation, uncertainty and stay-at-home measures is making people sick. Their medRxiv study suggests that people not infected with SARS-Cov-2 are experiencing increased markers of neuroinflammation, otherwise known as “pandemic brain.” Neuroinflammation is associated with mood disorders such as depression and is characterized by fatigue, brain fog and other psychological symptoms.

Image Credit: Fakurian Design

The researchers examined the brains of healthy and non-infected individuals before and after a lockdown in Massachusetts by using a questionnaire to evaluate a person’s mental and physical health during the pandemic. Then, brain imaging was used to identify any markers of neuroinflammation. For brains imaged after lockdown, there was an increase in the brain levels of [11C]PBR28 signal, a radioactive biochemical substance for the glial marker 18 kDa translocator protein (TSPO). The increase in [11C]PBR28 level is the reason people were more likely to report more issues with their physical and mental health after lockdown. For example, about 54% reported mood changes, 36% felt mentally exhausted, 27% were physically exhausted, and 18% said they had difficulty concentrating: all symptoms of a pandemic brain.

Pandemic brain, in simple terms, is the brain adapting to the new situation in the best way it can. Unfortunately, it manifests as feeling apathetic, tired, and depressed because of decreasing social interactions. Common symptoms also include forgetfulness and a lack of focus. According to Jeni Stolow, a professor at the College of Public Health, maintaining focus-- whether it’s memory, interpersonal connection or just completing tasks-- is challenging for the majority of the world right now.

The pandemic has been a collection of many simultaneous stressors, some of them life-threatening. These stressors have disrupted our physical activity, daily rhythms, and routines for an extended period. This sudden change has resulted in most people around the world entering survival mode and their cognitive abilities deteriorating significantly.

Pandemic brain is not a disorder. It’s more of a subjective report of what people describe as a fogging mind. It’s like a fogginess or a low-level depression that comes with being isolated or off your routines. There are quite a few ways in which we can cope with the effects of living with a pandemic brain, or even lessen the severity of the pandemic brain.

The first step is to be kind to yourself and avoid getting frustrated. Other ways in which you can help yourself are:

  1. Cut back on screen time.

  2. Exercise is your brain’s best friend.

  3. Set new routines to improve different areas of your life. When setting a new routine, start small and go slow. Just try to be a little better than you were yesterday.

  4. Listen to music you like.

  5. Practice living in the moment.

  6. Meditate to increase concentration and focus.


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