Cytokines, stress and depressive illness: brain-immune interactions

Document Type

Review Article


Brain and Mind Institute


Cytokines, signaling molecules of the immune system, have been implicated as a contributing factor for mood disorders such as depression. Several lines of evidence supporting this contention are briefly reviewed and caveats are introduced. Essentially, a relationship between cytokines and depression is based on the findings that: 1) proinflammatory cytokines (interleukin-1, interleukin-6, tumor necrosis factor-alpha) and bacterial endotoxins elicit sickness behaviors (e.g., fatigue, soporific effects) and symptoms of anxiety/depression that may be attenuated by chronic antidepressant treatment, 2) cytokines induce neuroendocrine and central neurotransmitter changes reminiscent of those implicated in depression, and these effects are exacerbated by stressors, 3) severe depressive illness is accompanied by signs of immune activation and by elevations of cytokine production or levels, and 4) immunotherapy, using interleukin-2 or interferon-alpha, promotes depressive symptoms that are attenuated by antidepressant treatment. It is argued that cytokine synthesis and release, elicited upon activation of the inflammatory response system, provoke neuroendocrine and brain neurotransmitter changes that are interpreted by the brain as being stressors, and contribute to the development of depression. Furthermore, such effects are subject to a sensitization effect so that a history of stressful experiences or cytokine activation augment the response to later challenges and hence the evolution of depression


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


Annals of Medicine