June 11, 2021 (Toronto) – Launched in June, which is Brain Injury Awareness Month, a new CAMH study will investigate whether people who have contracted COVID-19 have higher levels of brain inflammation, which has been associated with higher levels of depression.
The study is led by Dr. Jeffrey Meyer, head of the Neuroimaging Program in Mood & Anxiety at the Campbell Family Mental Health Research Institute at CAMH. “It is generally believed that if you have a high level of inflammation in the body that it can cause inflammation in the brain through connections to certain nerves and spread of inflammation-signaling proteins,” said Dr. Meyer. “My team and I previously discovered brain inflammation in people with depression, so when the pandemic began I wanted to look at brain inflammation in relation to COVID and then look at the effects on mood.”
There is already ample evidence that COVID impacts mental and neurological health. A study in The Lancet earlier this year of almost a quarter of a million people who contracted COVID found that one in three of them were diagnosed with a psychiatric or neurological condition afterwards. A study in JAMA Open last month found that among those sick enough to require hospitalization, 80 per cent had at least one neurological or psychiatric side-effect. There is even a new term—long haulers (also called post-COVID syndrome)—being used to describe people who continue to experience a variety of symptoms for months after a COVID diagnosis, including depression, anxiety, headaches and memory and concentration problems.
“Historically after previous major viral outbreaks, there have been high rates of depression symptoms in survivors,” said Dr. Meyer. “It’s thought that perhaps the reasons for these symptoms are related to brain inflammation. We are going to get to the heart of the matter by doing brain scans on people with long hauler COVID symptoms, to see whether there is inflammation in the brain.”
In a pioneering 2015 study published in JAMA Psychiatry, Dr. Meyer found that the brains of people with depression had more inflammation—30 per cent more on average—than the brains of people who were not depressed. The greater the inflammation, the more severe the depression. It was the first time an association between depression and brain inflammation had been found. This research was so ground-breaking that it became one of the most highly-cited international research studies ever produced by to date CAMH.
One of the reasons the study was so influential is that inflammation is actually quite difficult to detect in the brain. Despite all of the advances in brain imaging technology, there is still no way to detect brain inflammation with the naked eye. As with the 2015 study, Dr. Meyer is looking for brain inflammation in people who have contracted COVID-19 by using radioactive positron emission tomography (PET) tracers that were either created or adapted for clinical use by Dr. Neil Vasdev and his team at the Brain Health Imaging Centre at CAMH.
The PET tracers will look for heightened levels of two proteins called TSPO and MAO-B of which the brain produces more when there is inflammation present.
“CAMH is uniquely positioned to do this study quickly and make an impact on how COVID is treated,” said Dr. Meyer. “If we can establish an association between COVID and brain inflammation, we can use anti-inflammatory medications to see if we can get a reduction in symptoms for the long haulers suffering from symptoms of depression. This could provide new ways to reduce those affected by mental illness due to the pandemic and provide more information concerning the mental health risks from getting infected; especially for those who are wondering about the value of getting vaccinated.”
The study by Dr. Meyer is one of several research initiatives related to COVID-19 going on at CAMH according to Vice President of Research Dr. Aristotle Voineskos.
“At CAMH, we have several studies funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and other granting agencies to understand the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of children, adults, and the elderly. But, similar to Dr. Meyer’s study, we now have an emerging line of research that is trying to better understand the effects of COVID infection on brain and cognitive health across the lifespan.”
Dr. Meyer is actively recruiting participants who have experienced depression since testing positive for COVID-19. Anyone interested in taking part in the study who wants to find out if they are eligible can inquire at 416-535-8501 ext 30741 or via email at COVID19study@camh.ca.
This study is one of upwards of nearly 550 human participant research studies currently taking place at CAMH. CAMH receives $63M in funding annually from funding agencies like CIHR to conduct research to better understand and treat mental illness.
To learn more about research at CAMH, visit https://www.camh.ca/en/science-and-research
To learn more about participating in a research study, visit https://www.camh.ca/en/science-and-research/research-connect
About The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH)
CAMH is Canada's largest mental health and addiction teaching hospital and a world leading research centre in this field. CAMH combines clinical care, research, education, policy development and health promotion to help transform the lives of people affected by mental illness and addiction. CAMH is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto, and is a Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization Collaborating Centre. For more information, please follow @CAMHnews on Twitter.
CAMH Media Relations