The effects of stress and coping strategies regarding Covid-19 also depend on the pre-pandemic state of brain networks

A study reveals the importance of the configuration of individual brain networks before the Covid-19 outbreak in people’s ability of managing the impact of stress and coping strategies regarding the pandemic.

According to the article, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, the state of brain functionality —and not only sociodemographic or psychological aspects— should be taken into account in order to identify the most vulnerable population and thus be able to design preventive mental health strategies to face a global stress factor.

The study has been developed within the framework of the Barcelona Brain Health Initiative project of the Institut Guttmann and with the support of “la Caixa” Foundation, was coordinated by researchers María Cabello-Toscano, David Bartrés-Faz and Lídia Vaqué-Alcázar, from the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences and the Institute of Neurosciences of the University of Barcelona (UBNeuro), and members of the August Pi i Sunyer Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBAPS), and it was co-led by the researchers Álvaro Pascual-Leone and Josep M. Tormos, from the Guttmann Institute Neurorehabilitation Hospital. The study is funded by the PANDEMIAS 2020 call of the Agency for Management of University and Research Grants (AGAUR) and the 2020 edition of La Marató de TV3 and Catalunya Ràdio dedicated to Covid-19.

Understanding pre-pandemic predictors

Basing on a sample of 2,023 people aged between 40 and 65, the team analysed whether sociodemographic, psychological and neurobiological factors before the pandemic could be predictors of the changes in mental health experienced by the population during the first year of COVID-19. “As in previous studies, we found that being a woman represents a risk factor, but younger people also suffered more in terms of increased symptoms of anxiety and depression”, says Professor David Bartrés-Faz, a member of the Department of Medicine of the UB and Principal Investigator of the BBHI.

The application of neuroimaging techniques has made it possible to determine useful indicators to identify the most vulnerable populations to the effect of prolonged stress and with a potential impact on mental health. Therefore, people who are characterised by a more isolated functioning of one network —called “executive control”— are more sensitive to the effects of stress and therefore need better coping strategies in order not to show symptoms of anxiety or depression.

Combining the analysis of psychological factors and neuroimaging brain measures is an innovative strategy in the context of the studies conducted during the Covid-19 pandemic. Another methodological turning point was the long-term, year-long follow-up of a large population sample and the availability of a large amount of information on mental health aspects of the participants in the study during the two years prior to the onset of the pandemic. “In the absence of previous data, it is difficult to interpret whether the results obtained are a true reflection of the impact of Covid-19 or were already observable characteristics in that sample prior to the onset of the pandemic”, Bartrés-Faz notes.

“These findings point in the direction of applying customized preventive medicine to promote brain health and reduce the risk of diseases. Thus, interventions should be designed in a more individualised way and we should take into account the set of socio-demographic, psychological, biological, lifestyle and risk factors of individuals, among others”, concludes the research team.