Low levels of circulating inflammatory cytokines - Do they affect human brain functions?

Thomas Pollmächer, Monika Haack, Andreas Schuld, Abraham Reichenberg, Raz Yirmiya

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

180 Scopus citations


Animal studies provide consistent evidence for the pivotal role of inflammatory cytokines in inducing sickness behavior during systemic infection and inflammation. Because depression in humans shows a considerable symptomatic overlap with sickness behavior, it has been hypothesized that cytokines are also involved in affective disorders. This view is supported by studies showing that therapeutic administration of inflammatory cytokines can induce typical major depression and by evidence that stimulated cytokine-release during experimental endotoxemia provokes transient deterioration in mood and memory. However, in these conditions, similar to the animal models of acute infections, huge amounts of cytokines produced in the periphery act on the brain. In contrast, during most clinical conditions where depression might involve cytokine actions, such as chronic infection and inflammation, only low amounts of cytokines are circulating. The present paper addresses the question whether and how low amounts of circulating cytokines act on the human brain. Evidence is presented that very low amounts of circulating cytokines are likely to influence brain functions, even under baseline conditions. It is also likely that low levels of cytokines affect the same brain function as high levels do. However, it is uncertain whether these effects go in the same direction. NonREM sleep, for example, is promoted by a slight increase in cytokine levels, but suppressed by prominent increases. Because no comparable data are available for mood and other brain functions, the answer to the question whether and how low circulating amounts of cytokines affect mood depends on further experimental studies.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)525-532
Number of pages8
JournalBrain, Behavior, and Immunity
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2002
Externally publishedYes


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