Dr. Miller is William P. Timmie Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, GA.
Understanding the immunological basis of disease has revolutionized the treatment of cancer and autoimmune and inflammatory disorders, benefitting millions of people with breakthrough immunotherapies. We now suspect that immunologic processes may also play a pivotal role in the development and maintenance of psychiatric disorders, opening an entire new avenue for novel strategies to prevent and treat psychiatric disease.
The immunologic processes connected to depression have received the most attention. A vast amount of data supports the hypothesis that the immune system in general and inflammation in particular, represent a pathway to pathology in a significant number of depressed patients. Although the relationship between inflammation and depression may at first glance appear straightforward, this relationship is much richer and more nuanced than is often believed. In hopes of embracing the complexity involved, 5 essential points that represent our current understanding of the field are presented.
Depression is not an inflammatory disorder
Probably the most important lessons that we have learned about inflammation and depression are that depression is not an inflammatory disorder and not every patient with depression has increased inflammation. Although a multitude of studies have demonstrated increased mean concentrations of a variety of inflammatory markers in depressed patients compared with controls—including reproducible increases in the inflammatory cytokines tumor necrosis factor (TNF), interleukin (IL)-1β, IL-6 and the acute phase protein C-reactive protein (CRP)—there is considerable variability within the depressed population. Indeed, despite the question being asked repeatedly, we do not know the percentage patients in whom inflammation plays a role.
The difficulty in addressing this question is that the answer depends on the patient population being considered. The more inflammatory risk factors a patient has, the more likely he or she will have inflammation. There are a multitude of factors associated with increased inflammation (Table 1) including treatment resistance. For example, 45% of patients enrolled in a study on treatment resistant depression had a CRP > 3 mg/L, which is considered high inflammation.1
Another pivotal point is that increased inflammation not only occurs in depression but also in multiple other psychiatric diseases including bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, and schizophrenia. These data suggest that inflammation is transdiagnostic in nature, occurring in subpopulations of patients within a number of psychiatric disorders.
Inflammation has specific effects on the brain and behavior
As we gain more insight into how inflammation affects the brain, it is becoming increasingly clear that there is a surprising specificity on the impact of inflammation on behavior. Such specificity is apparent in the neurocircuits and neurotransmitter systems that appear to be most affected by inflammation both in the context of the administration of inflammatory stimuli or in association with inflammatory markers in patients with depression or other psychiatric disorders (Figure). For example, administration of the inflammatory cytokine interferon (IFN)-α to patients or administration of typhoid vaccination or endotoxin to healthy volunteers has shown that inflammation affects subcortical and cortical brain circuits associated with motivation and motor activity as well as cortical brain regions associated with arousal, anxiety, and alarm.2-4
Similar results have been found in patients with depression where increases in peripheral blood concentrations of the CRP were correlated with decreases in connectivity within motivation and reward circuits involving the ventral striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), that in turn were associated with anhedonia.5 Greater inflammatory responses to stress as reflected by salivary concentrations of soluble TNF receptor 2 have also been correlated with activation of threat assessment circuits in the brain involving the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) and insula.6 This latter effect of inflammation on threat and fear-related neurocircuitry may explain the emerging literature on the association of inflammatory markers with suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.7 Indeed, threat sensitivity has been shown to independently predict suicide risk, and data suggest that increased inflammatory markers may be preferentially associated with depressed patients who have attempted suicide.7,8
In terms of the neurotransmitter systems involved, inflammation reduces the availability of monoamines by increasing the expression and function of the presynaptic reuptake pumps (transporters) for serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine and by reducing monoamine synthesis and release by decreasing enzymatic co-factors such as tetrahydrobiopterin.1,2 Cytokine-induced decreases in basal ganglia dopamine release have been observed in humans and directly correlated with reduced motivation in laboratory animals.1,2
Inflammation also decreases relevant monoamine precursors by activating the enzyme indoleamine 2,3 dioxygenase, which breaks down tryptophan, the primary precursor for 5-HT, into kynurenine. Activated microglia can convert kynurenine into quinolinic acid, which can lead to excessive glutamate, an excitatory amino acid neurotransmitter. Excessive glutamate can lead to decreased brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and excitotoxicity. Increased CRP has been directly correlated with increased glutamate in the basal ganglia of patients with depression.9 Finally, based on the inhibitory effects of inflammation on monoamine metabolism and BDNF, it is not surprising that inflammation is associated with a poor response to conventional antidepressants, whose efficacy relies in part on increasing monoamine availability and inducing BDNF and neurogenesis.
The immunology of inflammation in depression is only beginning to be understood
Our understanding of the immunology underlying inflammation in depression is limited to a small number of human studies in addition to animal studies. Thus, the relative contribution of innate and adaptive immune responses is unknown. One might suspect from the inflammatory mediators that are increased in the blood of depressed patients (eg, TNF, IL-1β and IL-6) that the primary drivers of inflammation in depression involve monocytes and activation of the innate immune response. Consistent with this notion is a recent report of increased perivascular monocytes/macrophages and monocyte chemoattractant protein (MCP)-1, a protein that attracts monocytes to the tissues in postmortem brain samples of presumably depressed suicide victims.10
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