Questions of Mind Over Immunity
Scientists rethink the link between psychology and immune function
Like bacteria multiplying in a moist laboratory culture, investigations of the link between psychological factors and immune function proliferated during the 1980s. Particular interest centered on probes of disturbed immunity among people experiencing either clinical depression or some type of severe strees, such as bereavement.
As data accumulated, a seemingly incurable optimism infected scientists in thir relatively new discipline, known as psychoneuroimmunology. Perhaps, they mused, we can show that well-chosen psychological treatments shore up immunity and slow the spread of infectious diseases, from the common cold to virally induced cancers.
But the field with the long name and high hopes now finds itself dealing with a sense or hard-boiled skepticism. Some researchers say studies of stress, depression and immunity contain flaws that render them inconsistent and inconclusive. Others see the data in a better light but acknowledge that depression may have received premature billing as a powerful immunity-buster. And everyone admits that so far no solid evidence connects psychological states to any specific immune disease.
Investigations of stress, depression and immune measures have mainly generated "findings in search of meaning," concludes a team led by psychiatrist Marvin Stein on the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, writing in the February ARCHIVES OF GENERAL PSYCHIATRY.
In the mid-1980s, Stein's group conducted a study of bereaved men and severly depressed individuals, finding that infection-fighting white blood cells known as lymphocytes displayed stunted proliferation when chemically stimulated to reproduce (SN: 2/16/85, p.100). In a follow-up study, the researches observed that while younger depressed patients retained normal immune responses, many middle-aged or older depressed patients suffered declines in two …