If your alertness and reaction time fluctuates more than usual, you may be at higher risk of contracting a viral illness.
That’s the key finding of an experiment led by researchers at the University of Michigan working closely with researchers at Duke University School of Medicine and the University of Virginia.
“We all know that if we’re stressed or haven’t gotten enough sleep, that predisposes us to having a less resilient immune system,” he said. alfredo herothe John H. Holland Distinguished University Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at UM and corresponding author of the study in Scientific Reports.
“This is the first human exposure study to show that one’s cognitive performance prior to exposure to a respiratory virus can predict the severity of infection,” he said.
Subtle variations in daily cognitive performance may indicate changes in brain states known to increase risk for diseases such as stress, fatigue, and lack of sleep. The team wanted to measure cognitive function and explore whether it predicted immune performance after exposure to a respiratory virus. Cognitive variability, measured with a home digital self-assessment, was found to be highly predictive.
The team studied a cohort of 18 healthy volunteers who underwent brain performance tests three times a day for three days and were then exposed to a cold virus known as human rhinovirus. The software provided 18 measures of cognitive function, including reaction time, attention, and rapid switching between numbers and symbols, which were combined to obtain a variability index.
“At first, we didn’t find that cognitive function had a significant association with disease susceptibility because we used the raw scores. But later, when we looked at change over time, we found that variation in cognitive function is closely related to immunity and susceptibility,” said Yaya Zhai, a Ph.D. recent. UM bioinformatics graduate and first author of the study. She and Hero led the development of the cognitive variability index.
The team assessed viral clearance by using a saline solution to wash out the participants’ nostrils. They determined the presence of viral infection and the amount of virus in the fluid by growing the virus in cell culture. For symptoms, the team used the Jackson score, in which participants rated themselves from one to three on eight common cold symptoms.
“This is an interesting observation in a relatively small study. I hope there will be an opportunity to confirm these findings in a larger, more definitive study,” said Ronald Turner, a professor emeritus of pediatrics at the University of Virginia who led the experiment.
The team is optimistic that smartphone use could eventually help identify times of greatest susceptibility to disease, by monitoring cognitive indicators such as typing speed and accuracy, as well as the amount of time the user spends sleeping.
“Traditional clinical cognitive assessments that look at raw scores at a single point of time often don’t give a true picture of brain health,” he said. P. Murali Doraiswamydirector of the Neurocognitive Disorders Program at Duke University School of Medicine, who designed the neurocognitive testing portion of the study.
“In-home, regular cognitive monitoring, through digital self-assessment platforms, is the future of brain health assessment,” Doraiswamy said.
The study was part of a project funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to find out if it was possible to predict susceptibility to disease in soldiers. That project was led by Geoffrey Ginsburg, then a professor at the Duke Center for Applied Genomics and Precision Medicine, and he led the contingent of the team that analyzed blood samples for biomarkers that might indicate susceptibility to disease.
The experiment also uncovered some genetic markers that may indicate reduced immune function, which the team can further explore in future studies.
Reference: Zhai Y, Doraiswamy PM, Woods CW, et al. The variability of cognitive performance before exposure is associated with the severity of the respiratory infection. scientific representative. 2022;12(1):22589. do: 10.1038/s41598-022-26081-6
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