When the body experiences trauma or infection, research shows that the inflammation that follows can impair the brain’s ability to form spatial memories. During inflammation, the brain is unable to properly process glucose, it’s main source of fuel. Because of this impairment, the part of the brain responsible for forming memories is disrupted, and the neural circuits involved in learning and memory are significantly impaired. This finding does not come as much of a surprise, with conditions like Alzheimer’s consistently associated with increased levels of systemic inflammation – inflammation and cognitive impairment go hand-in-hand. However, recent studies have focused on explaining why inflammation impairs memory, in an attempt to spur the development of new drugs for dementia.
In one study, 20 participants were scanned before and after either a harmless salty water injection or a inflammation-inducing typhoid shot. Hoping to better understand how inflammation impairs memory, researchers measured the effects of inflammation on glucose metabolism within the brain. The participants were then tested with a variety of tasks in a virtual reality setting. Inflammation seemed to affect an area of the brain known as the medial temporal lobe. Participants with neuroinflammation performed less well in virtual reality spatial memory tasks due to altered glucose metabolism in the medial temporal lobe. While researchers explain that it’s been known for some time that infections may lead to long-term cognitive impairment in the elderly, the study sheds light on the ways inflammation could impact brains of all ages. This leads researchers to wonder if catching the common cold or flu could contribute to damaging inflammatory responses, impairing an otherwise healthy memory.
While it’s unlikely that infections will cause long-term harmful impacts in the young and healthy, these types of studies are important for future research regarding the elderly. The role of inflammation in dementia progression is well established, but until recently, the role of acute infection on dementia has been somewhat mysterious. Future studies will likely highlight the role of short-term, common infections in the rate of cognitive decline in the elderly population. Clinical studies show that the brain’s memory circuits are sensitive to neuroinflammation, and that the regulation of the inflammatory response could help to reduce the rate of decline in patient’s cognitive abilities.
There are a few ways that loss of memory and cognition can be prevented. For one, eating an anti-inflammatory diet can help to regulate exaggerated immune responses. A nutrient called luteolin – commonly found in carrots, peppers, celery, olive oil, peppermint, rosemary, and chamomile, improves cognitive health by acting directly on memory cells within the brain. Luteolin works by inhibiting the production of inflammatory mediators within the brain, offering protective benefits and preventing cognitive impairment. Another way to protect cognitive health is a regimen of natural anti-inflammatory supplements. Serrapeptase, as a systemic enzyme, regulates immune function by controlling the production of inflammatory molecules, especially in areas of localized inflammation. The regular use of serrapeptase may provide protective effects from both acute and chronic inflammatory damage.