Research: THORNTON and co-authors,

Listed in Issue 143


THORNTON and co-authors, Department of Psychology, The Ohio State University, 159 Psychology Building, 1835 Neil Avenue, Columbus, Ohio 43210, USA,, have studied individual changes in immune function after the shock of a cancer diagnosis.


Research connects stressful events with altered immune regulation, but the role of subjective stress is uncertain. The aim of this study was to explore the relationship between subjective stress and immunity. Using a longitudinal design, a statistically powerful test of the relationship between subjective stress (perceived stress, emotional distress) and immunity (T cell blastogenesis, natural killer cell cytotoxicity) is provided, as individuals adjust to a severe stressor, a cancer diagnosis and its treatments.


Women with regional breast cancer (N=113) were assessed at diagnosis/surgery and reassessed 4, 8, 12, and 18 months later. Latent growth curve analysis tested two hypotheses: (1) initial levels of subjective stress will correlate inversely with initial levels of immunity, and (2) rate of change in subjective stress will correlate inversely with rate of change in immunity.


As predicted by Hypothesis 1, participants with high initial subjective stress showed poor initial immune function. As predicted by Hypothesis 2, participants exhibiting an early, rapid decline in subjective stress also showed rapid improvement in immune function. Follow-up analyses revealed perceived stress to be strongly related to immune function, while emotional distress was not.


This is the first study to investigate trajectories in stress and immunity during recovery from a major stressor. Results imply that Natural Killer and T cells are sensitive to different aspects of the stress response. While T cell activity correlated with initial (peak) subjective stress, Natural Killer activity correlated with change (improvement) in subjective stress.


Thornton LM, Andersen BL, Crespin TR, Carson WE. Individual trajectories in stress covary with immunity during recovery from cancer diagnosis and treatments. Brain, Behavior, & Immunity 21 (2): 185-194, Feb 2007.


These results are absolutely fascinating, and illuminate the complexities regarding how the individual elements of our immune system interact with our responses to stress.

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