Prolonged exposure to lung-derived cytokines is associated with activation of microglia in patients with COVID-19

The Northwestern University Successful Clinical Response In Pneumonia Therapy (NU SCRIPT) Investigators7

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


BACKGROUND. Survivors of pneumonia, including SARS-CoV-2 pneumonia, are at increased risk for cognitive dysfunction and dementia. In rodent models, cognitive dysfunction following pneumonia has been linked to the systemic release of lung-derived pro-inflammatory cytokines. Microglia are poised to respond to inflammatory signals from the circulation, and their dysfunction has been linked to cognitive impairment in murine models of dementia and in humans. METHODS. We measured levels of 55 cytokines and chemokines in bronchoalveolar lavage fluid and plasma from 341 patients with respiratory failure and 13 healthy controls, including 93 unvaccinated patients with COVID-19 and 203 patients with other causes of pneumonia. We used flow cytometry to sort neuroimmune cells from postmortem brain tissue from 5 patients who died from COVID-19 and 3 patients who died from other causes for single-cell RNA-sequencing. RESULTS. Microglia from patients with COVID-19 exhibited a transcriptomic signature suggestive of their activation by circulating pro-inflammatory cytokines. Peak levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines were similar in patients with pneumonia irrespective of etiology, but cumulative cytokine exposure was higher in patients with COVID-19. Treatment with corticosteroids reduced expression of COVID-19-specific cytokines. CONCLUSION. Prolonged lung inflammation results in sustained elevations in circulating cytokines in patients with SARS-CoV-2 pneumonia compared with those with pneumonia secondary to other pathogens. Microglia from patients with COVID-19 exhibit transcriptional responses to inflammatory cytokines. These findings support data from rodent models causally linking systemic inflammation with cognitive dysfunction in pneumonia and support further investigation into the role of microglia in pneumonia-related cognitive dysfunction.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere178859
JournalJCI Insight
Issue number8
StatePublished - 2024

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Medicine


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