Impaired cognition is a major predisposing factor for postoperative delirium, but it is not systematically assessed. Anesthesia and surgery may cause postoperative delirium by affecting brain integrity. Neurofilament light in serum reflects axonal injury. Studies evaluating the perioperative course of neurofilament light in cardiac surgery have shown conflicting results. The authors hypothesized that postoperative serum neurofilament light values would be higher in delirious patients, and that baseline concentrations would be correlated with patients’ cognitive status and would identify patients at risk of postoperative delirium.


This preplanned secondary analysis included 220 patients undergoing elective cardiac surgery with cardiopulmonary bypass. A preoperative cognitive z score was calculated after a neuropsychological evaluation. Quantification of serum neurofilament light was performed by the Simoa (Quanterix, USA) technique before anesthesia, 2 h after surgery, on postoperative days 1, 2, and 5. Postoperative delirium was assessed using the Confusion Assessment Method for Intensive Care Unit, the Confusion Assessment Method, and a chart review.


A total of 65 of 220 (29.5%) patients developed postoperative delirium. Delirious patients were older (median [25th percentile, 75th percentile], 74 [64, 79] vs. 67 [59, 74] yr; P < 0.001) and had lower cognitive z scores (–0.52 ± 1.14 vs. 0.21 ± 0.84; P < 0.001). Postoperative neurofilament light concentrations increased in all patients up to day 5, but did not predict delirium when preoperative concentrations were considered. Baseline neurofilament light values were significantly higher in patients who experienced delirium. They were influenced by age, cognitive z score, renal function, and history of diabetes mellitus. Baselines values were significantly correlated with cognitive z scores (r, 0.49; P < 0.001) and were independently associated with delirium whenever the patient’s cognitive status was not considered (hazard ratio, 3.34 [95% CI, 1.07 to 10.4]).


Cardiac surgery is associated with axonal injury, because neurofilament light concentrations increased postoperatively in all patients. However, only baseline neurofilament light values predicted postoperative delirium. Baseline concentrations were correlated with poorer cognitive scores, and they independently predicted postoperative delirium whenever patient’s cognitive status was undetermined.

Editor’s Perspective
What We Already Know about This Topic
  • Postoperative delirium is a common complication after cardiac surgery
  • Preoperative cognitive impairment is a leading predisposing factor of postoperative delirium
  • Elevated concentrations of baseline neurofilament light in serum have been associated with poorer baseline cognition in cardiac surgery patients.
What This Article Tells Us That Is New
  • In this preplanned secondary analysis of a prospective cohort study including 220 elective cardiac surgery patients, baseline serum neurofilament light concentrations were associated with the occurrence of postoperative delirium
  • Baseline serum neurofilament light concentrations were correlated with lower baseline cognitive scores and were an independent predictor of postoperative delirium when patients’ cognitive status was not considered