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Papers of the Week

Papers: 9 Dec 2023 - 15 Dec 2023

2023 Dec 09

Brain Behav Immun


Neuroimmune activation and increased brain aging in chronic pain patients after the COVID-19 pandemic onset.


Brusaferri L, Alshelh Z, Schnieders JH, Sandström A, Mohammadian M, Morrissey EJ, Kim M, Chane CA, Grmek GC, Murphy JP, Bialobrzewski J, DiPietro A, Klinke J, Zhang Y, Torrado-Carvajal A, Mercaldo N, Johnson-Akeju S, Wu O, Rosen BR, Napadow V, Hadjikhani N, Loggia ML


The COVID-19 pandemic has exerted a global impact on both physical and mental health, and clinical populations have been disproportionally affected. To date, however, the mechanisms underlying the deleterious effects of the pandemic on pre-existing clinical conditions remain unclear. Here we investigated whether the onset of the pandemic was associated with an increase in brain/blood levels of inflammatory markers and MRI-estimated brain age in patients with chronic low back pain (cLBP), irrespective of their infection history. A retrospective cohort study was conducted on 56 adult participants with cLBP (28 ‘Pre-Pandemic’, 28 ‘Pandemic’) using integrated Positron Emission Tomography/ Magnetic Resonance Imaging (PET/MRI) and the radioligand [C]PBR28, which binds to the neuroinflammatory marker 18 kDa Translocator Protein (TSPO). Image data were collected between November 2017 and January 2020 (‘Pre-Pandemic’ cLBP) or between August 2020 and May 2022 (‘Pandemic’ cLBP). Compared to the Pre-Pandemic group, the Pandemic patients demonstrated widespread and statistically significant elevations in brain TSPO levels (P =.05, cluster corrected). PET signal elevations in the Pandemic group were also observed when 1) excluding 3 Pandemic subjects with a known history of COVID infection, or 2) using secondary outcome measures (volume of distribution -V- and V ratio – DVR) in a smaller subset of participants. Pandemic subjects also exhibited elevated serum levels of inflammatory markers (IL-16; P <.05) and estimated BA (P <.0001), which were positively correlated with [C]PBR28 SUVR (r’s ≥ 0.35; P’s < 0.05). The pain interference scores, which were elevated in the Pandemic group (P <.05), were negatively correlated with [C]PBR28 SUVR in the amygdala (r = -0.46; P<.05). This work suggests that the pandemic outbreak may have been accompanied by neuroinflammation and increased brain age in cLBP patients, as measured by multimodal imaging and serum testing. This study underscores the broad impact of the pandemic on human health, which extends beyond the morbidity solely mediated by the virus itself.