The pathophysiology of delirium is incompletely understood, including what molecular pathways are involved in brain vulnerability to delirium. This study examined whether preoperative plasma neurodegeneration markers were elevated in patients who subsequently developed postoperative delirium through a retrospective case-control study.


Inclusion criteria were patients of 65 yr of age or older, undergoing elective noncardiac surgery with a hospital stay of 2 days or more. Concentrations of preoperative plasma P-Tau181, neurofilament light chain, amyloid β1-42 (Aβ42), and glial fibrillary acidic protein were measured with a digital immunoassay platform. The primary outcome was postoperative delirium measured by the Confusion Assessment Method. The study included propensity score matching by age and sex with nearest neighbor, such that each patient in the delirium group was matched by age and sex with a patient in the no-delirium group.


The initial cohort consists of 189 patients with no delirium and 102 patients who developed postoperative delirium. Of 291 patients aged 72.5 ± 5.8 yr, 50.5% were women, and 102 (35%) developed postoperative delirium. The final cohort in the analysis consisted of a no-delirium group (n = 102) and a delirium group (n = 102) matched by age and sex using the propensity score method. Of the four biomarkers assayed, the median value for neurofilament light chain was 32.05 pg/ml for the delirium group versus 23.7 pg/ml in the no-delirium group. The distribution of biomarker values significantly differed between the delirium and no-delirium groups (P = 0.02 by the Kolmogorov–Smirnov test) with the largest cumulative probability difference appearing at the biomarker value of 32.05 pg/ml.


These results suggest that patients who subsequently developed delirium are more likely to be experiencing clinically silent neurodegenerative changes before surgery, reflected by changes in plasma neurofilament light chain biomarker concentrations, which may identify individuals with a preoperative vulnerability to subsequent cognitive decline.

Editor’s Perspective
What We Already Know about This Topic
  • Postoperative delirium is common in older patients
  • Cognitive impairment and frailty are known predictors for the development of postoperative delirium
What This Article Tells Us That Is New
  • Preoperative plasma neurofilament light may be useful for identifying patients at risk for developing postoperative delirium