Feeling the stress of COVID-19? It may be affecting your brain. According to Madeleine Sharp, researcher at the Neuro (Montréal Neurological Institute-Hospital) and professor in the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery at McGill University, and her colleagues Ross Otto and Kevin da Silva Castanheira in McGill’s Department of Psychology, the worry brought about by the pandemic could have a negative influence on your brain’s information processing and risk perception abilities. The findings are significant, since the brain relies on cognitive processes to handle stressful situations like a global pandemic.

The experts established the links by surveying 1,500 Americans between April and June 2020 to determine how worried they were about COVID-19 and how much stress they felt in their lives. The respondents then took several psychological tests online.

One of the tests involved quickly associating symbols that appeared on screen to the corresponding keyboard key. Commonly used by cognitive researchers, the test revealed that those who were more worried about the pandemic were slower to process information and retain the steps to carry out the tasks.

In a second test meant to assess risk perception, subjects could gain 100 points with a 60% chance of winning or 40 points with a 100% chance of winning. The researchers noted that the respondents who were more worried were also more sensitive to the description of the probabilities and more irrational in their overestimation of the risks or less probable benefits of a choice. That may explain what motivates decisions related to issues including COVID-19 vaccination.

The impacts of stress on the brain should therefore be considered by public health authorities, since we don’t all process information in the same way!