How the immune system may be linked to mental illness

The way the body responds to infection could shed light on how mental illness develops, according to a new study.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge found that children with high levels of protein in the blood in response to infection are more likely to develop depression and psychosis as adults.

The findings suggest physical illness and mental illness might share some of the same biological mechanisms, a press release on the study stated.

How the body fights infection

Exposure to any type of infection, like influenza, causes the immune system to release proteins into the blood stream to fight off the foreign invader.

We carry trace levels of these proteins when we are healthy, but it appears that children with higher everyday levels of the immune protein interleukin-6 (IL-6) are about twice as likely to experience depression and psychosis symptoms as children who have low everyday levels of the protein.

Dr. Golam Khandaker, from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, elaborated:

Our immune system acts like a thermostat, turned down low most of the time, but cranked up when we have an infection. In some people, the thermostat is always set slightly higher, behaving as if they have a persistent low level infection -- these people appear to be at a higher risk of developing depression and psychosis. It's too early to say whether this association is causal, and we are carrying out additional studies to examine this association further.

Inflammation increases risk

High levels of stress or adversity early in life could lead to increases in levels of IL-6, explained lead study author Peter Jones, which raises inflammation and increases the risk of chronic mental and physical illnesses.

Research has also shown that people with depression and schizophrenia are more likely to suffer from diabetes or heart disease - and high levels of IL-6 is linked to increased risk for both of the latter conditions.

Source: University of Cambridge

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