Social Context and
Other Psychological Influences on the
Development of Immunity
Christopher L. Coe & Gabriele R. Lubach
Infant animals are born with biological needs for a certain type of rearing environment to facilitate the normal maturation and expression of behavioral and physiological processes. When rearing conditions deviate significantly from the species-typical norm, it is known that infant growth and development proceeds in an abnormal manner. In the case of mammalian offspring, caregiving by the mother appears to be an essential dimension of this environmental context, which is critical for the correct ontogeny of behavioral and emotional well-being. For many animals, the nursing mother is both a source of sustenance and warmth and the vehicle for ensuring social bonding, emotional security, and initial learning about the environment. In addition, there has been a general consensus since the 1950s that the healthy maturation of several of the infant's physiological systems is also dependent on appropriate parenting. The important enabling role of this early experience in facilitating physiological development was revealed by demonstrating abnormal growth, endocrine activity, and brain neurochemistry in animals after perturbations of the mother-infant relationship. The findings discussed in the rest of this chapter extend the perspective from the field of developmental psychobiology to encompass the effects of the social environment on the maturation of immunity. We will be reviewing a series of studies that show the influence of several different rearing events on immune competence in young monkeys, through both transient stress-induced alterations in immune responses and more prolonged changes in the set points at which some immune processes become established during maturation.
Our research also reflects the influence of a newer discipline commonly known as psychoneuroimmunology (PNI), which has been investigating the relationships among psychosocial factors, immune responses, and immune-related disease. The coalescing of PNI as a field is usually attributed to a book with this