COVID-19 remains a significant international public health concern. Yet, the mechanisms through which symptomatology emerges remain poorly understood. While SARS-CoV-2 infection may induce prolonged inflammation within the central nervous system, the evidence primarily stems from limited small-scale case investigations. To address this gap, our study capitalized on longitudinal UK Biobank neuroimaging data acquired prior to and following COVID-19 testing (N = 416 including n = 224 COVID-19 cases; Mage = 58.6). Putative neuroinflammation was assessed in gray matter structures and white matter tracts using non-invasive Diffusion Basis Spectrum Imaging (DBSI), which estimates inflammation-related cellularity (DBSI-restricted fraction; DBSI-RF) and vasogenic edema (DBSI-hindered fraction; DBSI-HF). We hypothesized that COVID-19 case status would be associated with increases in DBSI markers after accounting for potential confound (age, sex, race, body mass index, smoking frequency, and data acquisition interval) and multiple testing. COVID-19 case status was not significantly associated with DBSI-RF (|β|’s < 0.28, pFDR >0.05), but with greater DBSI-HF in left pre- and post-central gyri and right middle frontal gyrus (β′s > 0.3, all pFDR = 0.03). Intriguingly, the brain areas exhibiting increased putative vasogenic edema had previously been linked to COVID-19-related functional and structural alterations, whereas brain regions displaying subtle differences in cellularity between COVID-19 cases and controls included regions within or functionally connected to the olfactory network, which has been implicated in COVID-19 psychopathology. Nevertheless, our study might not have captured acute and transitory neuroinflammatory effects linked to SARS-CoV-2 infection, possibly due to symptom resolution before the imaging scan. Future research is warranted to explore the potential time- and symptom-dependent neuroinflammatory relationship with COVID-19.

Original languageEnglish
Article number100722
JournalBrain, Behavior, and Immunity - Health
StatePublished - Mar 2024


  • COVID-19
  • DBSI
  • Diffusion basis spectrum imaging
  • Long COVID
  • Neuroimaging
  • Neuroinflammation
  • UK biobank


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