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Fatigue during acute systemic inflammation is associated with reduced mental effort expenditure while task accuracy is preserved

Lambregts, BIHM;Vassena, E;Jansen, A;Stremmelaar, DE;Pickkers, P;Kox, M;Aarts, E;van der Schaaf, ME;

Earlier work within the physical domain showed that acute inflammation changes motivational prioritization and effort allocation rather than physical abilities. It is currently unclear whether a similar motivational framework accounts for the mental fatigue and cognitive symptoms of acute sickness. Accordingly, this study aimed to assess the relationship between fatigue, cytokines and mental effort-based decision making during acute systemic inflammation.Eighty-five participants (41 males; 18-30 years (M=23.0, SD=2.4)) performed a mental effort-based decision-making task before, 2 hours after, and 5 hours after intravenous administration of 1 ng/kg bacterial lipopolysaccharide (LPS) to induce systemic inflammation. Plasma concentrations of cytokines (interleukin (IL)-6, IL-8 and tumor necrosis factor (TNF)) and fatigue levels were assessed at similar timepoints. In the task, participants decided whether they wanted to perform (i.e., ‘accepted’) arithmetic calculations of varying difficulty (3 levels: easy, medium, hard) in order to obtain rewards (3 levels: 5, 6 or 7 points). Acceptance rates were analyzed using a binomial generalized estimated equation (GEE) approach with effort, reward and time as independent variables. Arithmetic performance was measured per effort level prior to the decisions and included as a covariate. Associations between acceptance rates, fatigue (self-reported) and cytokine concentrations levels were analyzed using partial correlation analyses.Plasma cytokine concentrations and fatigue were increased at 2 hours post-LPS compared to baseline and 5 hours post-LPS administration. Acceptance rates decreased for medium, but not for easy or hard effort levels at 2 hours post-LPS versus baseline and 5 hours post-LPS administration, irrespective of reward level. This reduction in acceptance rates occurred despite improved accuracy on the arithmetic calculations itself. Reduced acceptance rates for medium effort were associated with increased fatigue, but not with increased cytokines.Fatigue during acute systemic inflammation is associated with alterations in mental effort allocation, similarly as observed previously for physical effort-based choice. Specifically, willingness to exert mental effort depended on effort and not reward information, while task accuracy was preserved. These results extend the motivational account of inflammation to the mental domain and suggest that inflammation may not necessarily affect domain-specific mental abilities, but rather affects domain-general effort-allocation processes.