In a study published in Neuroimage, the team in collaboration with the University of Amsterdam showed that inflammation has a negative impact 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. “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,” explained senior study author Dr Ali Mazaheri from University of Birmingham
Inflammation is a defence mechanism in the body where white blood cells and substances they produce protect us from infection with foreign organisms, such as bacteria, damaged cells, irritants and viruses. Autoimmune diseases, like some types of arthritis, can also trigger an inflammatory response when there are no foreign invaders to fight off. Without the inflammation responses infections, wounds and damage to tissue would not be able to heal. However chronic inflammation can eventually cause several diseases and conditions.
Corticosteroids, such as cortisol, are a class of steroid hormones that prevent a number of mechanisms involved in inflammation. There are also several herbs and foods that have been shown to help reduce the risk of chronic inflammation including olive oil, fatty fish, leafy greens, turmeric and ginger.
The study by the University of Birmingham focused specifically on an area of the brain that is responsible for visual attention with the results showing that inflammation specifically affected brain activity related to staying alert, while the other attention processes appeared unaffected by inflammation. “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,” noted Professor Jane Raymond.