The Common Cold and Cognition

Transcript of Neuro Nugget Video:

This past week, I had a terrible head cold, and quite frankly felt totally out of it most of the time. Common colds bestow the misery of coughing, congestion, and assorted aches and pains. But few people realize that the viruses may affect their brains as well as their bodies. “The sort of cognitive impairment you see from a common cold is in the same ballpark with the consumption of alcohol, working at night, or working for prolonged hours,” says Dr. Andrew Smith, a psychology professor who has researched the cognitive effects of colds for more than 25 years.

Activities where safety is critical, like driving or operating dangerous machinery, may be impaired when you have a cold. Researchers have explored not only the cognitive effects of colds, but also how some people may be more or less susceptible to catching them. New research finds that parenthood and a positive outlook may help protect against colds, while stress can undermine the immune system’s effectiveness in fighting off those viruses.

In a study published last year, 189 participants completed a series of baseline cognitive tests. Then over the next 90 days, one third of them returned to the lab after they developed a cold, while the remaining healthy participants served as the control group. The participants with colds reported less alertness, more negative moods, and sluggish thinking.

A second round of tests showed they also had slower reaction times and were slower at learning new information and completing tasks involving verbal reasoning and semantic processing. Research suggests that cold viruses cause sluggishness by interfering with neurotransmitters, perhaps affecting the transmission of noradrenaline, choline, and dopamine. Noradrenaline is associated with reaction times and choline has been linked to the encoding of new information, while dopamine affects our working memory speed.

A study of 15 participants with colds and 10 healthy participants completed a simulated driving task. Those with colds responded more slowly to unexpected events on the roads, and were less likely to detect collisions. A wealth of research has explored how stress can wreak havoc on the immune system, which may lead to more colds and more severe physical symptoms. In one study, people who suffered from long-term interpersonal stressors, such as a bad marriage or work conflicts, were 2 1/2 times more likely to get a cold than people without those stressors.

People who were unemployed or underemployed had it even worse. They were almost five times more likely to develop a cold. Of course, the impact that stress has on the common cold is just one facet of the research exploring the relationship between the mind and the immune system. Wanna learn more about your brain and how it functions? Call and schedule your brain map today.


Posted on

May 3, 2023