The impact of stress on immune cells

While anecdotally the link between stress and an increased susceptibility to infection and illness is known, new research led by University of Melbourne Professor Scott Mueller, Laboratory Head at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity (Doherty Institute) shows the impact that stress has on immune cells.

The research published in Immunity reveals that in response to a period of stress, immune cells stop moving. While this isn’t permanent, stress can dramatically affect the way our immune system responds.

“We know anecdotally that when we are stressed, we are more likely to get sick, but exactly why this occurs has been difficult to define, until now,” says Professor Mueller.

“The imaging [used in the study] showed us that stress caused immune cells to stop moving, preventing them from protecting against disease.

“Movement is central to how immune cells can get to the right parts of the body to mount an immune response against infections or tumours, so it was surprising to see that the stress signals had such a rapid and dramatic effect on how immune cells move around.

“We also showed that it was different types of immune cells that were affected, and that it can occur in many different parts of the body.”

Professor notes that while this research shows that stress incurred needs to be significant to halt the movement of immune cells, this study may provide avenues that may be utilised to help overcome the negative effects of stress on immunity.

“It’s difficult to study what kind of stress signals could induce the immune cells to stop – is it sudden shock? Or chronic psychological stress?” questions Professor Mueller.

“The next steps in this project will be to study the mechanisms of this process.

“In addition, we will use the findings to test if immune responses to cancer are suppressed by sympathetic nervous system stress signals and if we can use this to boost anti-cancer responses in patients.”

This project has been conducted in collaboration with Associate Professor Erica Sloan at the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences.

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