Inflammation Could Be Causing Your Brain Fog, New Study Finds

mbg Associate Movement & Wellness Editor By Ray Bass, NASM-CPT
mbg Associate Movement & Wellness Editor

Ray Bass is the associate movement and wellness editor at mindbodygreen and a NASM-Certified Personal Trainer. She holds a degree in creative writing from the University of Pennsylvania, with honors in nonfiction.

Can't Focus? New Study Finds Inflammation May Cause Brain Fog

Image by A.J. Schokora / Stocksy

We've all been there: We wake up, tasks on our mind, and for whatever reason, we just can't do them. We aren't able to focus on anything long enough for it to matter, and it feels like our brains are trudging through quicksand. That, my friends, is called brain fog—and according to a new study, there may be a serious reason for it. 

First, it's worth pointing out that brain fog is often associated with chronic medical conditions. That's not to say you have an illness if you have brain fog, but you could, researchers found, have inflammation

Researchers at the University of Birmingham and the University of Amsterdam found that inflammation could be to blame for mental sluggishness and brain fog. How? Well, they more or less were able to deduce the area of the brain inflammation tends to weaken: the one that controls our readiness and 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," says Ali Mazaheri, Ph.D., a senior author of the study. "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 this condition or if there are other reasons. Our research has identified a specific critical process within the brain that is clearly affected when inflammation is present." 

The study involved young males, who were given a salmonella typhoid vaccine that causes temporary inflammation, and little to no other side effects. Several hours later, they were given cognitive assessments and their brain activity was measured. On a separate occasion, participants were given a placebo vaccine (an injection with water) and underwent testing once more. The results were clear: The attention processes of those with inflammation were compromised, and those without inflammation were unaffected. 

"These results show quite clearly that there's a very specific part of the brain network that's affected by inflammation," Mazaheri says. "This could explain 'brain fog.'"

Professor Jane Raymond, another senior study author, added, "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."

Do these results surprise us? Not entirely. Inflammation, as we've been told by numerous doctors, wreaks havoc on the whole body—everything from our gut to our muscles to our heart, and especially our brain. And what's worse? Chronic inflammation isn't always obvious. In other words, someone could have brain fog or poor digestion and not know that the underlying cause is inflammation. How can anyone permanently alleviate their symptoms without knowing where they're coming from? 

While this study is sure to provoke many questions, it also opens the door for more research surrounding inflammation and brain function, which we hope will lead to improved treatments for chronic conditions—or better yet, improved prevention methods. Now wouldn't that be something?

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