The novel coronavirus brought to the scientific scene the urgency to create research capable of discussing some of its characteristics and consequences. In this context, researchers from laboratories and research centers at the Universidade Federal Fluminense (UFF) and the Fundação Oswaldo Cruz (Fiocruz) developed, in cooperation, a transdisciplinary research on the central nervous system impairment due to exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the virus causer of COVID-19.

The scientific article called Psycho-Neuroendocrine-Immune Interactions in COVID-19: Potential Impacts on Mental Health, published at Frontiers in Immunology, aims to discuss how the virus can lead to psychiatric changes and raise questions that can identify a mental health prognosis after the pandemic, considering different hypotheses.

Participated in this partnership Priscilla Oliveira Silva Bomfim, coordinator of the Núcleo de Pesquisa, Ensino, Divulgação e Extensão em Neurociências (Center for Research, Teaching, Dissemination and Extension in Neurosciences — NuPEDEN/UFF), Elizabeth Giestal de Araújo, and Pablo Pandolfo, all professors of the Graduate Program in Neurosciences (PPGN/UFF), and Professor Wilson Savino, researcher and professor at Fiocruz. The UFF medical student Ícaro Raony Marques dos Santos also collaborates with the study, in addition to Camila Saggioro de Figueiredo, doctoral student at PPGN/UFF.

The research is transdisciplinary and brought together a team with different expertise. Priscilla Bomfim explains that the idea came from conversations with the students involved in the study. “In the debate about COVID-19, it was observed that, although there is already a lot of research on its devastation capacity relating to the respiratory system, there were open questions about the central nervous system involvement. Based on this observation, we decided, then, to gather the studies already carried out in order to awaken people’s eyes to the impact of the new coronavirus on mental health,” she reports.

There is a real risk that we are heading towards social damage on a large scale, as it is likely that a pandemic of mental disorders as a consequence of what we are now experiencing will happen.


Priscilla Bonfim

The questions that support the research deal with some fundamental questions. Firstly, how the virus accesses the nervous system, what damage is likely in the short, medium, and long term, and also the causes of mental health impairment. Following, what are the psychological consequences of COVID-19, considering different aspects such as economics, the impact of social isolation, among others. Finally, the possible side effects of COVID-19 on mental health after the pandemic.

“The transdisciplinary approach of this discussion considers the relationship between immunological changes observed in patients with the coronavirus and the possible impairment of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA), including the imbalance in the regulation of cortisol (stress hormone) in relation to the development of psychiatric manifestations observed in people with the disease,” says Priscilla.

The researcher points out that this reflection generated more questions than answers and that several hypotheses were raised about how this new virus can affect the mental health of individuals. The feeling of insecurity generated by the fear of contracting the disease or fear of unemployment, for example, alone triggers the system that responds to physical or psychological stress and accentuates or acts as a trigger for the development of psychiatric disorders. The researchers raise the possibility that people may develop psychiatric disorders during or after social isolation, whether they have been infected or not.

“There is a real risk that we are heading towards social damage on a large scale, as it is likely that a pandemic of mental disorders as a consequence of what we are experiencing now will happen. We are not close to the end of it all; therefore, it is necessary to join efforts to develop studies that can mitigate this new crisis that is to come. This will help to create new strategies for other critical situations that may come in the future,” warns the professor.

Doctoral student Camila Saggioro declares that this work, in addition to being a fundamental reflection in this COVID-19 pandemic, also provides guidelines for conducting clinical studies and developing basic research, both of which are very important to understand how the virus can lead to damage to mental health. The survey also discussed some actions that can help reduce the damage caused by the stress of social isolation, and it is important and urgent to guide the population on how to improve and try to maintain mental health in the pandemic.

For Ícaro Raony, the study proposes a reflection in the light of social and biological factors that are determinants for psychic illness before COVID-19. In addition, the student points out that there is a lot of concern about the direct impacts of social isolation on the economy; however, few reflections on the economic problems associated with psychiatric disorders.

“World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that depression and anxiety alone have a global economic impact of one billion dollars a year. When these data are associated with the fact that Brazil is the ‘most anxious’ country in the world and with the evidence that social isolation and COVID-19 can trigger or exacerbate anxiety and depression disorders, there is a perception that there is an urgent need for actions that can reduce the impacts of the pandemic on mental health and, consequently, on society and the economy,” highlights the student.

Finally, Professor Priscilla concludes that it is necessary for the authorities to pay attention to the mental health of citizens, in order to prevent and address issues in this area properly. “If the population is closely monitored in the long term, it will be possible to generate data that shows how psychologically devastating a pandemic can be. Scientists from all over the world are working to answer this question, but the result needs to go further and reach the competent entities to guide them in the elaboration of public policies. By making society look at this topic again, the research will be successful. Thus, science fulfills its role in favor of the country’s social development,” she concludes.


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