Study Links Chronic Sinus Inflammation to Changes in Brain Activity

Research is the first to link chronic sinus inflammation with a neurobiological change.

Sinus inflammation has been linked to alterations in brain activity, according to a new study published in JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery. Specifically, neural networks that modulate cognition, introspection, and response to external stimuli are impacted by chronic sinusitis.

“This is the first study that links chronic sinus inflammation with a neurobiological change," said Aria Jafari, MD, assistant professor of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery at the University of Washington School of Medicine, in a press release. “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.”

The researchers identified a study cohort from the Human Connectome Project, an open-access, brain-focused dataset of 1206 healthy adults from 22 to 35 years of age, including radiology image scans and cognitive/behavioral measurements. These scans allowed them to identify 22 individuals with moderate or severe sinus inflammation as well as an age and gender-matched control group of 22 people with no sinus inflammation.

According to the study, functional MRI scans of the cohort with sinus inflammation found decreased functional connectivity in the frontoparietal network, which maintains attention and problem-solving, and in the salience network, which is involved in detecting and integrating external stimuli, communication, and social behavior.

Additionally, these individuals had increased functional connectivity to 2 nodes in the default-mode network, which influences self-reference and is active during wakeful rest and mind-wandering. The magnitude of the differences in brain activity scaled with the severity of sinus inflammation, according to the study’s authors.

Despite these changes in brain activity, the study showed no significant deficit in the behavioral and cognitive testing of these participants.

“The participants with moderate and severe sinus inflammation were young individuals who did not show clinically significant signs of cognitive impairment. However, their brain scans told us a different story: The subjective feelings of attention decline, difficulties to focus or sleep disturbances that a person with sinus inflammation experiences might be associated with subtle changes in how brain regions controlling these functions communicate with one another,” said Kristina Simonyan, MD, PhD, in the release. “It is also possible that we might have detected the early markers of a cognitive decline where sinus inflammation acts as a predisposing trigger or predictive factor.”


Chronic sinus inflammation appears to alter brain activity [news release]. EurekAlert; April 8, 2021. Accessed April 9, 2021.