Publications & Posters

Systemic inflammation relates to neuroaxonal damage associated with long-term cognitive dysfunction in COVID-19 patients

Brain, Behavior, and Immunity | February 17, 2024

Duindam HB, Mengel D, Kox M, Göpfert JC, Kessels RPC, Synofzik M, Pickkers P, Abdo WF.

Brain Behav Immun. 2024


Background and objectives

Cognitive deficits are increasingly recognized as a long-term sequela of severe COVID-19. The underlying processes and molecular signatures associated with these long-term neurological sequalae of COVID-19 remain largely unclear, but may be related to systemic inflammation-induced effects on the brain. We studied the systemic inflammation-brain interplay and its relation to development of long-term cognitive impairment in patients who survived severe COVID-19. Trajectories of systemic inflammation and neuroaxonal damage blood biomarkers during ICU admission were analyzed and related to long-term cognitive outcomes.


Prospective longitudinal cohort study of patients with severe COVID-19 surviving ICU admission. During admission, blood was sampled consecutively to assess levels of inflammatory cytokines and neurofilament light chain (NfL) using an ultrasensitive multiplex Luminex assay and single molecule array technique (Simoa). Cognitive functioning was evaluated using a comprehensive neuropsychological assessment six months after ICU-discharge.


Ninety-six patients (median [IQR] age 61 [55–69] years) were enrolled from March 2020 to June 2021 and divided into two cohorts: those who received no COVID-19-related immunotherapy (n = 28) and those treated with either dexamethasone or dexamethasone and tocilizumab (n = 68). Plasma NfL concentrations increased in 95 % of patients during their ICU stay, from median [IQR] 23 [18–38] pg/mL at admission to 250 [160–271] pg/mL after 28 days, p < 0.001. Besides age, glomerular filtration rate, immunomodulatory treatment, and C-reactive protein, more specific markers of systemic inflammation at day 14 (i.e., interleukin (IL)-8, tumour necrosis factor, and IL-1 receptor antagonist) were significant predictors of blood NfL levels at day 14 of ICU admission (R2 = 44 %, p < 0.001), illustrating the association between sustained systemic inflammation and neuroaxonal damage. Twenty-six patients (27 %) exhibited cognitive impairment six months after discharge from the ICU. NfL concentrations showed a more pronounced increase in patients that developed cognitive impairment (p = 0.03). Higher NfL predicted poorer outcome in information processing speed (Trail Making Test A, r = −0.26, p = 0.01; Letter Digit Substitution Test, r = −0.24, p = 0.02).


Prolonged systemic inflammation in critically ill COVID-19 patients is related to neuroaxonal damage and subsequent long-term cognitive impairment. Moreover, our findings suggest that plasma NfL concentrations during ICU stay may possess prognostic value in predicting future long-term cognitive impairment in patients that survived severe COVID-19.