Background: Depression is characterized by altered neurobiological responses to threat and inflammation may be involved in the development and maintenance of symptoms. However, the mechanistic pathways underlying the relationship between the neural underpinnings of threat, inflammation and depressive symptoms remain unknown. Methods: Twenty participants with major depressive disorder (MDD) and 17 healthy controls (HCs) completed this study. Peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) were collected and stimulated ex vivo with lipopolysaccharide (LPS). We then measured a broad array of secreted proteins and performed principal component analysis to compute an aggregated immune reactivity score. Subjects completed a well-validated emotional face processing task during functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Amygdala activation was measured during perception of threat for the main contrast of interest: fear > happy face. Participants completed the Mood and Anxiety Symptom Questionnaire (MASQ) and the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS). Correlation analyses between amygdala activation, the aggregate immune score, and symptom were computed across groups. A mediation analysis was also performed across groups to further explore the relationship between these three variables. Results: In line with our hypotheses and with prior work, the MDD group showed greater amygdala activation in response to threat compared to the HC group [t35 = -2.038, p = 0.049]. Internal consistency of amygdala activation to threat was found to be moderate. Response to an ex vivo immune challenge was greater in MDD than HC based on the computed immune reactivity score (PC1; t35 = 2.674, p = 0.011). Amygdala activation was positively correlated with the immune score (r = 0.331, p = 0.045). Moreover, higher amygdala activation was associated with greater anxious arousal measured by the MASQ (r = 0.390, p = 0.017). Exploring the role of stress, we found that higher perceived stress was positively associated with both inflammatory response (r = 0.367, p = 0.026) and amygdala response to threat (r = 0.325, p = 0.050). Mediation analyses showed that perceived stress predicted anxious arousal, but neither inflammation nor amygdala activation fully accounted for the effect of perceived stress on anxious arousal. Conclusion: These data highlight the potential importance of threat circuitry hyperactivation in MDD, consistent with prior reports. We found that higher levels of inflammatory biomarkers were associated with higher amygdala activation, which in turn was associated with anxious arousal. Future research utilizing larger sample sizes are needed to replicate these preliminary results.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)205-212
Number of pages8
JournalBrain, Behavior, and Immunity
StatePublished - Aug 2022


  • Amygdala
  • Anxious arousal
  • Functional MRI
  • Inflammation
  • Leukocytes
  • Major depressive disorder
  • Neuroimaging
  • Stress
  • Threat


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