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12 May | 2020

What effects does confinement have on mental and brain health?

The Barcelonaβeta Brain Research Center (BBRC), the research center of the Pasqual Maragall Foundation, has just launched a new study, thanks to the impulse of ”la Caixa” Foundation, which will analyze the effects of confinement on mental health and brain, as well as other factors that mitigate or aggravate its impact.

The study will include the participation of more than 2,500 cognitively healthy people, between 45 and 75 years old and descendants, in most cases, of people with Alzheimer's. All of them are or have been part of other BBRC projects, especially the Alfa Study. The research will pay special attention to brain changes related to Alzheimer's disease, and the impact of confinement on people who are caring for a loved one, either with dementia or with some other disease that involves dependency or special needs.

According to Dr. Eider Arenaza-Urquijo, principal investigator of the new BBRC study, “there are precedents for this type of social isolation measures that show that quarantine and confinement can create detrimental effects on mental health. Analyzing the impact of these types of measures, as well as other factors that may mitigate or exacerbate their impact on mental health, are essential to promote public health measures.“

Participants will have to answer a series of online questionnaires in two different periods: during confinement and about 18-24 months later, so that researchers can evaluate the results related to anxiety, depression and possible post-traumatic stress.
All these questions revolve around factors such as the space of confinement and cohabitation: their state of health; information search strategies; concern for their finances and access to essential products; and social interactions and lifestyle (quality of sleep, exercise and cognitive activity).

Four hypotheses

The study is designed to evaluate four major hypotheses about the effects of confinement during the COVID-19 pandemic:

  1. Mental health. Confinement will have a psychological impact, including increased feelings of anxiety and depression, and will be associated with irritability, frustration, and worry.
  2. Style and quality of life. Confinement will be associated with changes in lifestyle patterns (sleep, exercise) and quality of life, as well as with changes in consumption or use of psychotropic drugs (coffee, alcohol, nicotine).
  3. Brain health. Variables related to confinement, such as chronic stress that has been linked to an increased risk of suffering Alzheimer's, will be associated with the structure and function of the brain. Also with the biomarkers of Alzheimer's disease and the acceleration of age-related effects.
  4. Impact on women and caregivers. Home confinement will have a more damaging impact on the mental and brain health of women and, in particular, caregivers.

Dr. Eider Arenaza-Urquijo points out that “to maximize the scientific impact of the study, we will combine the data of the participants obtained from other BBRC studies. In this way, we will have retrospective information on mental health and lifestyle variables, and information available on brain measurements and biomarkers related to the pathology of Alzheimer's disease”.