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The impact of COVID-19 on human health extends beyond the morbidity and death toll directly caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. In fact, accumulating evidence indicates a global increase in the incidence of fatigue, brain fog and depression, including among non-infected, since the pandemic onset. Motivated by previous evidence linking those symptoms to neuroimmune activation in other pathological contexts, we hypothesized that subjects examined after the enforcement of lockdown/stay-at-home measures would demonstrate increased neuroinflammation. We performed simultaneous brain Positron Emission Tomography / Magnetic Resonance Imaging in healthy volunteers either before (n=57) or after (n=15) the 2020 Massachusetts lockdown, using [11C]PBR28, a radioligand for the glial marker 18 kDa translocator protein (TSPO). First, we compared [11C]PBR28 signal across pre- and post-lockdown cohorts. Then, we evaluated the link between neuroinflammatory signals and scores on a questionnaire assessing mental and physical impacts of the pandemic. Further, we investigated multivariate associations between the spatial pattern of [11C]PBR28 post-lockdown changes and constitutive brain gene expression in post-mortem brains (Allen Human Brain Atlas). Finally, in a subset (n=13 pre-lockdown; n=11 post-lockdown), we also used magnetic resonance spectroscopy to quantify brain (thalamic) levels of myoinositol (mIns), another neuroinflammatory marker. Both [11C]PBR28 and mIns signals were overall stable pre-lockdown, but markedly elevated after lockdown, including within brain regions previously implicated in stress, depression and ‘sickness behaviors’. Moreover, amongst the post-lockdown cohort, subjects endorsing higher symptom burden showed higher [11C]PBR28 PET signal compared to those reporting little/no symptoms. Finally, the post-lockdown [11C]PBR28 signal changes were spatially aligned with the constitutive expression of several genes highly expressed in glial/immune cells and/or involved in neuroimmune signaling. Our results suggest that pandemic-related stressors may have induced sterile neuroinflammation in healthy individuals that were not infected with SARS-CoV-2. This work highlights the possible impact of the COVID-19 pandemic-related lifestyle disruptions on human brain health.

Competing Interest Statement

The authors have declared no competing interest.

Funding Statement

R01-NS094306-01A1, R01-NS095937-01A1, R01-DA047088-01, The Landreth Family Foundation.

Author Declarations

I confirm all relevant ethical guidelines have been followed, and any necessary IRB and/or ethics committee approvals have been obtained.


The details of the IRB/oversight body that provided approval or exemption for the research described are given below:

The Institutional Review Board (IRB) of Mass General Brigham (MGB) gave ethical approval to this study. Written informed consent was obtained from all participants before enrollment according to the ethical standards of the 1964 Helsinki declaration.

All necessary patient/participant consent has been obtained and the appropriate institutional forms have been archived.


I understand that all clinical trials and any other prospective interventional studies must be registered with an ICMJE-approved registry, such as I confirm that any such study reported in the manuscript has been registered and the trial registration ID is provided (note: if posting a prospective study registered retrospectively, please provide a statement in the trial ID field explaining why the study was not registered in advance).


I have followed all appropriate research reporting guidelines and uploaded the relevant EQUATOR Network research reporting checklist(s) and other pertinent material as supplementary files, if applicable.


Paper in collection COVID-19 SARS-CoV-2 preprints from medRxiv and bioRxiv

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