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Chronic Interpersonal Stress Predicts Activation of Pro- and Anti-Inflammatory Signaling Pathways 6 Months Later

Miller, Gregory E. PhD; Rohleder, Nicolas PhD; Cole, Steve W. PhD

doi: 10.1097/PSY.0b013e318190d7de
Original Articles

Objective: To understand the mechanisms underlying chronic interpersonal difficulties and their detrimental influence on mental and physical health.

Methods: A total of 103 healthy young women (mean age = 17 years) were administered a structured interview to assess the degree of chronic interpersonal stress in their lives. At the same time, blood was drawn to measure systemic inflammation, the expression of signaling molecules that regulate immune activation, and leukocyte production of the cytokine interleukin-6 after ex vivo stimulation with lipopolysaccharide. All of the immunologic assessments were repeated 6 months later.

Results: To the extent subjects were high in chronic interpersonal stress at baseline, their leukocytes displayed greater increases in messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) for the proinflammatory transcription factor nuclear factor-κB (NF-κB) over the next 6 months. They also showed larger increases in mRNA for inhibitor of κB, a molecule that sequesters NF-κB in the cytoplasm and minimizes its proinflammatory activities. Chronic interpersonal stress at baseline was unrelated to changes in biomarkers of systemic inflammation but was associated with increasingly pronounced interleukin-6 responses to lipopolysaccharide. These associations were independent of demographics, lifestyle variables, and depressive symptoms.

Conclusions: These findings suggest that chronic interpersonal difficulties accentuate expression of pro- and anti-inflammatory signaling molecules. Although this process does not result in systemic inflammation under quiescent conditions, it does accentuate leukocytes’ inflammatory response to microbial challenge. These dynamics may underlie the excess morbidity associated with social stress, particularly in inflammation-sensitive diseases like depression and atherosclerosis.

CRP = C-reactive protein; GR = glucocorticoid receptor; IκB = inhibitor of κB; IL = interleukin; mRNA = messenger ribonucleic acid; NF-κB = nuclear factor-κB.

From the Department of Psychology (G.M., N.R.), University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada; Department of Medicine (S.W.C.), Division of Hematology-Oncology, UCLA School of Medicine, Los Angeles, California; UCLA AIDS Institute (S.W.C.), Molecular Biology Institute, and Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center; and Norman Cousins Center at UCLA (S.W.C.), Los Angeles, California.

Address correspondence and reprint requests to Gregory Miller, Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia, 2136 West Mall Avenue, Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z4, Canada. E-mail:

Received for publication April 9, 2008; revision received June 26, 2008.

Conflicts of Interest: None of the authors has a biomedical financial interest or a conflict of interest to declare related to this project.

Supported by grants from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research, the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, the National Alliance for Research on Depression and Schizophrenia, and the German Research Foundation.

Copyright © 2009 by American Psychosomatic Society
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