A prospective study of neuroendocrine and immune alterations associated with the stress of an oral academic examination among graduate students

Document Type



Brain and Mind Institute


Stressful experiences may influence neuroendocrine, immune and cytokine functioning, as well as physical and psychological well being. The present prospective investigation assessed physiological and behavioral variations in anticipation of a critical oral academic examination among graduate students (i.e. related to a dissertation or comprehensive defense). Relative to matched control subjects, plasma cortisol levels were elevated among graduate students, especially females, 1 h prior to the oral examination, but not 6–8 weeks earlier (at about the time of the submission of the written document). In contrast, mitogen-stimulated (Con-A) lymphocyte proliferation was only reduced 6–8 weeks before the examination. Neither adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH), prolactin, serum interleukin-1β (IL-1β) nor mitogen stimulated IL-1β production was influenced at any time. Although, graduate students did not differ from controls with respect to perceived stress and feelings of mastery, they reported more frequent malaise (e.g. headaches, sore throat, fatigue) than did controls. The present findings suggest that during the course of lengthy anticipatory periods preceding a scheduled stressor, different stress-sensitive, situation-dependent biological processes may be engendered. It is further suggested that cortisol release is most closely aligned with immediate threats, while the immune alterations are sensitive to more distal events, or are subject to adaptation in response to a protracted stressor.


This work was published before the author joined Aga Khan University.

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