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MRI Links Social Fretting To Inflammation

August 10, 2010
Written by: , Filed in: Neuroradiology
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Stress is bad for you. We know that. But in what way? How does a stressful situation translate into negative physical consequences?

MRI has now given us a partial answer: people who show greater neural sensitivity to social stress also demonstrate physical increases in inflammatory activity. And chronic inflammation is a risk factor for asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, some cancers, and depression, among other disorders.

UCLA researchers reached these conclusions in a study that appears in the online edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“It turns out there are important differences in how people interpret and respond to social situations,” said lead author George Slavich, PhD, as quoted in a UCLA news release. Dr. Slavich is a postdoctoral fellow at the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology in Los Angeles.

“For example,” he said, “some people see giving a speech in front of an audience as a welcome challenge; others see it as threatening and distressing. In this study, we sought to examine the neural bases for these differences in response and to understand how these differences related to biological processes that can affect human health and well-being.”

The researchers put 124 volunteers (54 men and 70 women) into two awkward social situations. First, in the lab, the subjects completed a stress test that involved preparing and delivering an impromptu speech and performing difficult mental arithmetic, all in front of a socially rejecting panel of raters wearing white lab coats. Mouth swabs taken before and after the test looked for changes in two key biomarkers of inflammatory activity.

Then 31 of the volunteers played a computerized game of catch with what they believed to be two other people. Halfway through the game, the other two “players” froze out the volunteers and started playing exclusively between themselves, as MRI monitored two areas of the brain known to respond to social stress.

The individuals whose brains reacted most strongly to the social rejection test also showed greater increases in inflammatory activity during the earlier stress test.

“This is further evidence of how closely our mind and body are connected,” Dr. Slavich said. “We have known for a long time that social stress can ‘get under the skin’ to increase risk for disease, but it’s been unclear exactly how these effects occur. To our knowledge, this study is the first to identify the neurocognitive pathways that might be involved in inflammatory responses to acute social stress.”

Okay, but why would humans have evolved a linkage between social stress and physical inflammation?

The authors speculated that, because social threat or rejection can lead to violence—”I’ll teach you to snub me”—inflammation may be triggered in anticipation of physical injury. Inflammatory cytokines, which are proteins that regulate the immune system, are released in response to anticipated or actual physical danger because they accelerate healing and reduce the risk of infection.

However, while short-term inflammation can be healthy, chronic inflammation is not. Apparently, evolution is not exempt from the law of unintended consequences.

Related seminar: Head To Toe Imaging


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