Is your stuffy nose 'stuffing up' your brain?

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  • A persistent stuffy nose, along with other symptoms related to chronic sinusitis could lead to impaired brain activity
  • The chronic condition may bring along symptoms that cause difficulty concentrating, sleeping problems and occasional dizziness
  • Certain parts of the brain showed increased or decreased functionality in people with nasal congestion

If you suffer from a persistent stuffy nose, along with headaches, new research suggests there is a link between this chronic condition and possible changes in brain activity.

Researchers conducted a study on patients with chronic rhinosinusitis, along with patients who had no sinus inflammation.

Map of neural connections

The study states that while there have been “several meaningful advances” relating to the effects of chronic rhinosinusitis on cognitive functionality, there have been no studies of possible links between the condition and “higher-order neural processing”.

The study used a data set, obtained from the Human Connectome Project – an open-access and publicly available resource, detailing a comprehensive map of neural connections in the brains of various people.

The study was published in JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery.

Researchers enrolled 22 participants who demonstrated the necessary sinus and nasal inflammation, and compared them to 22 control participants.

The participants suffering from inflammation were further divided into groups according to the severity of their symptoms.

Lower functional connectivity

Participants were screened for psychiatric conditions, neurological or genetic conditions, along with diabetes and cardiovascular diseases because all these conditions can affect “neuroimaging quality”.

From the data they obtained, they analysed blood flow and neuron activity in the brain and found lower functional connectivity in the part of the brain responsible for attention and problem solving, i.e. the frontoparietal network.

They also found higher functional connectivity in the part of the brain linked to “mind wandering”, the default mode network, along with lower functional connectivity in the part of the brain which manages “external stimuli, communication and social behaviour”, known as the salience network.

In a news release, one of the researchers, Aria Jafari, an otolaryngologist at the University of Washington, said, “This is the first study that links chronic sinus inflammation with a neurobiological change.

“We know from previous studies that patients who have sinusitis often decide to seek medical care, not because they have a runny nose and sinus pressure, but because the disease is affecting how they interact with the world.

“They can’t be productive, thinking is difficult, sleep is lousy. It broadly impacts their quality of life. Now we have a prospective mechanism for what we observe clinically.”

Other ways to treat the condition

While there may have been a change in brain activity, participants did not show noticeable signs of cognitive decline in the tests, but researchers think that decline may possibly occur later in life; it may be something a lengthier study may be able to pick up on.

Researchers wanted to figure out why effects of the inflammation possibly include bouts of depression, difficulty concentrating, challenges with sleeping and occasional dizziness.

They also wanted to discover other, perhaps more efficient, ways to treat the condition, and added that medical professionals should more mindful of the mental health symptoms that may accompany illnesses like sinus inflammation.

Jafari added: “Our care should not be limited to relieving the most overt physical symptoms, but the whole burden of patients’ disease.”

READ | 6 ways sinusitis can cause a mysterious 'brain fog'

READ | Are you using the correct treatment for your sinusitis?

READ | 7 reasons why your sinusitis could be worse in winter

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