How Stress Triggers Inflammation and Depression
Depression and bipolar disorder are associated with increases in markers of inflammation that can be found in the brain and blood. It is increasingly clear that the mechanisms that cause depression are not just in the brain, but actually throughout the body. These include two signaling systems that begin in the bone marrow and the spleen.
When a small mouse is repeated defeated by a larger animal, they show depression-like symptoms known as defeat stress. Animal studies have shown that stress and danger signals are perceived and relayed to the amygdala and the hypothalamus. The sympathetic nervous system releases the neurotransmitter norepinephrine into bone marrow, where stem cells are turned into activated monocytes (a type of white blood cells) that are then released into the blood. The monocytes travel to the brain, leading to the activation of more inflammatory cells.
Blocking part of this process can prevent the depression-like behaviors from occurring. If the bone marrow monocytes are blocked from entering the brain, inflammation and defeat stress behaviors like social avoidance do not occur. However, if there is a second bout of defeat stress, primed monocytes that have been stored in the spleen are released and travel to the brain, producing further increases in inflammatory cells and even more defeat stress behaviors.
If these monocytes from the spleen are blocked, the inflammation and the reaction to the new stressor do not occur.
Stress also activates lymphocytes (another type of white blood cells) to secrete the inflammatory cells Il-6. If this Il-6 secretion is inhibited, defeat stress behaviors can be prevented.
Defeat stress also leads to the release of the neurotransmitter glutamate. Some of this cascade begins in the brain, which evaluates stressors and releases IL-1 beta, another type of inflammatory cell. It slows down the production of glutamate, while IL-6 can endanger neurons and is associated with anhedonia—loss of interest in pleasurable activities. This cascade also leads to the production of another type of inflammatory cell, TNF-alpha, which has adverse effects on biochemistry, brain, and behavior.
This understanding of the role of the brain and body provides new targets for drug development. If inflammatory processes are blocked, defeat stress behaviors do not occur. Researcher Michael D. Weber and colleagues described this process in detail in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology Reviews in 2017.
Together these observations suggest that inflammatory processes in the body are crucial to the development of some stress- and inflammation-related depressive behaviors.