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Brain Behav Immun. 2009 Feb;23(2):217-24. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2008.09.007. Epub 2008 Sep 20.

Synergistic effects of psychological and immune stressors on inflammatory cytokine and sickness responses in humans.

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  • 1Psychobiology Group, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, 1-19 Torrington Place, London WC1E 6BT, UK.


Activation of the innate immune system is commonly accompanied by a set of behavioural, psychological and physiological changes known as 'sickness behaviour'. In animals, infection-related sickness symptoms are significantly increased by exposure to psychosocial stress, suggesting that psychological and immune stressors may operate through similar pathways to induce sickness. We used a double-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled design to examine the effect of acute psychological stress on immune and subjective mood responses to typhoid vaccination in 59 men. Volunteers were assigned to one of four experimental conditions in which they were either injected with typhoid vaccine or saline placebo, and then either rested or completed two challenging behavioural tasks. Typhoid vaccine induced a significant rise in participants' serum levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6) and this response was significantly larger in the stress versus rest conditions. Negative mood increased immediately post-tasks, an effect also more pronounced in the vaccine/stress condition. In the vaccine/stress group, participants with larger IL-6 responses had heightened systolic blood pressure responses to tasks and elevated post-stress salivary levels of the noradrenaline metabolite 3-methoxy-phenyl glycol (MHPG) and cortisol. Our findings suggest that, as seen in animals, psychological and immune stressors may act synergistically to promote inflammation and sickness behaviour in humans.

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