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Brain Behav Immun. 2014 Mar;37:78-83. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2013.12.017. Epub 2013 Dec 29.

Divergent gene expression responses to complicated grief and non-complicated grief.

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Department of Psychology, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85750, USA.
Medizinische Hochschule Hannover, Carl-Neuberg-Str. 1, D-30625 Hannover, Germany.
Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.
Department of Medicine, University of California, Los Angeles, CA 90095, USA.
Contributed equally


The "widowhood effect" (i.e., morbidity/mortality in recently bereaved spouses) may be related to changes in immune function, but little is known about the impact of bereavement on gene transcription in immune cells. This study examined how Complicated Grief and Non-complicated Grief responses to bereavement differentially affect leukocyte gene expression. Genome-wide transcriptional profiling and bioinformatic analyses were completed on 63 older adults. Thirty-six of them had lost their spouse/partner on average 2years ago, and 27 were nonbereaved, married controls. Twelve of the bereaved participants met criteria for Complicated Grief. Compared to nonbereaved controls, bereavement (both Complicated Grief and Non-complicated Grief) was associated with upregulated expression of genes involved in general immunologic activation and a selective downregulation of genes involved in B lymphocyte responses. However, Complicated Grief and Non-complicated Grief differed markedly in their expression of Type I interferon-related transcripts, with Non-complicated Grief subjects showing substantial upregulation relative to nonbereaved controls and Complicated Grief subjects showing substantial downregulation. Bereavement significantly modulates immune function gene expression. The magnitude of bereavement-related distress (i.e., Complicated Grief vs. Non-complicated Grief) is linked to differential patterns of transcription factor activation and gene expression involved in innate antiviral responses. These findings provide a molecular framework for understanding the health effects of bereavement, as well as new insights into the particular gene modules that are most sensitive to the individual's psychological response to loss.


Antiviral; Bereavement; Complicated Grief; Gene expression; Gene transcription; Immune system; Type I interferon; Widowhood

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