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Can we develop immunity to stress and depression?

February 15, 2015|Counseling & Psychotherapy

It is well known that stress and depression are associated with decreased immune system function. However, it has been presumed that stress and mood issues lead to changes in the immune system. While that may be true, or partly true, new research suggests that our immune system may actually impact our ability to tolerate stress and impact our brain functioning. In a recent study (with mice, not humans yet), normal mice receiving transplanted cells from mice showing depression-like behavior demonstrated what appeared to be an “immunity” response to stress. That is, much the way vaccines work, the mice who had already experienced depression-like problems may have created an immune response that could be conveyed to another mouse, the latter showing better “immunity” to stress.

A similar study showed an opposite pattern of being able to “transmit” reduced immunity to stress, resulting in the otherwise normal mice showing more problematic behaviors and “moods.”

While these are new studies pertaining only to mice, they may alter the way we think about how we handle stress and could lead to new methods for improving stress tolerance and preventing or treating mood problems.

Excerpts from report:

Just a couple of weeks ago, NIMH’s Miles Herkenham and colleagues reported discovery of a counterintuitive route to stress resilience that works in mice – at least initially – via the peripheral immune system.1 The researchers wanted to know whether cells of the adaptive immune system might retain the memory of a psychological stress when transplanted into another animal. Based on previous results, it seemed unlikely that immune cells from an animal in a depression-like state might confer resilience to an unstressed animal.

The researchers transplanted white blood cells lymphocytes from mice that had developed depression-like behaviors into mice of an experimental strain lacking lymphocytes – so that the foreign cells would readily integrate into their bodies. The treated naïve mice were markedly more sociable, less anxious and their brains showed increased birth of new cells and fewer inflammatory cells than control animals, following social stress. Control cells had no effect.

Link to blog post via NIMH · Immune to Stress?.

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