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Open Access Research

Enhancing versus Suppressive Effects of Stress on Immune Function: Implications for Immunoprotection versus Immunopathology

Firdaus S Dhabhar

Author Affiliations

Stanford Center on Stress & Health and Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University, 1201 Welch Road, MSLS Building, P114, Stanford, CA 94305-5485

The work described here was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health (AI48995 and CA107498) and The Dana Foundation

Allergy, Asthma & Clinical Immunology 2008, 4:2-11  doi:10.1186/1710-1492-4-1-2

Published: 15 March 2008

Abstract

It is widely believed that stress suppresses immune function and increases susceptibility to infections and cancer. Paradoxically, stress is also known to exacerbate allergic, autoimmune, and inflammatory diseases. These observations suggest that stress may have bidirectional effects on immune function, being immunosuppressive in some instances and immunoenhancing in others. It has recently been shown that in contrast to chronic stress that suppresses or dysregulates immune function, acute stress can be immunoenhancing. Acute stress enhances dendritic cell, neutrophil, macrophage, and lymphocyte trafficking, maturation, and function and has been shown to augment innate and adaptive immune responses. Acute stress experienced prior to novel antigen exposure enhances innate immunity and memory T-cell formation and results in a significant and long-lasting immunoenhancement. Acute stress experienced during antigen reexposure enhances secondary/adaptive immune responses. Therefore, depending on the conditions of immune activation and the immunizing antigen, acute stress may enhance the acquisition and expression of immunoprotection or immunopathology. In contrast, chronic stress dysregulates innate and adaptive immune responses by changing the type 1-type 2 cytokine balance and suppresses immunity by decreasing leukocyte numbers, trafficking, and function. Chronic stress also increases susceptibility to skin cancer by suppressing type 1 cytokines and protective T cells while increasing suppressor T-cell function. We have suggested that the adaptive purpose of a physiologic stress response may be to promote survival, with stress hormones and neurotransmitters serving as beacons that prepare the immune system for potential challenges (eg, wounding or infection) perceived by the brain (eg, detection of an attacker). However, this system may exacerbate immunopathology if the enhanced immune response is directed against innocuous or self-antigens or dysregulated following prolonged activation, as seen during chronic stress. In view of the ubiquitous nature of stress and its significant effects on immunoprotection and immunopathology, it is important to further elucidate the mechanisms mediating stress-immune interactions and to meaningfully translate findings from bench to bedside.

Keywords:
allergy; catecholamines; glucocorticoid/cortisol; immune surveillance; proinflammatory/autoimmune; psycho-neuroimmunology; vaccine