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Brain Behav Immun. 2011 Aug;25(6):1094-8. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2011.02.015. Epub 2011 Feb 26.

Early activation of p38 mitogen activated protein kinase is associated with interferon-alpha-induced depression and fatigue.

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Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322, United States.


Cytokine-induced stimulation of p38 mitogen activated protein kinase (MAPK) has been shown to influence behaviorally-relevant pathophysiologic pathways including monoamine neurotransmission and neuroendocrine function and thus may contribute to behavioral changes that occur during chronic administration of the innate immune cytokine, interferon (IFN)-alpha. Accordingly, in the current study, phosphorylation (activation) of intracellular p38 MAPK in peripheral blood lymphocytes was analyzed by flow cytometry every 2 h for 12 h following the initial injection of IFN-alpha in eleven patients with chronic hepatitis C. Hourly assessments of plasma concentrations of adrenocorticotropic hormone, cortisol and interleukin-6 were also obtained. Symptoms of depression and fatigue were measured at baseline and after 4 and 12 weeks of IFN-alpha treatment. Acute administration of IFN-alpha significantly increased the percentage of lymphocytes staining positive for intracellular phosphorylated p38 (p-p38). IFN-alpha-induced increases in p-p38 were significantly greater in patients that developed clinically significant depressive symptoms [Montgomery-Asberg Depression Rating Scale (MADRS) score≥15] during the first 12 weeks of IFN-alpha treatment. Increases in the percentage of p-p38-positive lymphocytes following the first IFN-alpha injection also highly correlated with depression severity at weeks 4 (r=0.85, p=0.001) and 12 (r=0.70, p=0.018). Similar relationships were observed for fatigue. Examination of relationships between p-p38 induction and factors previously reported to predict IFN-alpha-induced depressive symptoms revealed strong associations of p-p38 with baseline MADRS (r=0.82, p=0.002) and cortisol responses to the initial injection of IFN-alpha (r=0.91, p=0.000). Taken together, these findings indicate that sensitivity of p38 MAPK signaling pathways to immune stimulation is associated with depressive symptoms during chronic IFN-alpha treatment.

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