New Research Ties the Mental Illness to the Immune System


A research study conducted by scientists at the University of Cambridge suggests that there is a significant link between how the body responds to common childhood illnesses, like the flu, and the development of depression or psychosis in adulthood.

Conducted over several years, researchers tracked a group of 4500 children, beginning at age 9, giving them blood tests to determine their current level of blood proteins, such as interleukin-6. IL-6 is a common protein, which the immune system releases in response to common viruses like influenza.

IL-6 and other proteins are accepted as part of the body’s defense system. While these proteins are always present, during times of illness or infection, the levels increase dramatically in a counterattack. The children in the study, known as Children of the 90’s, were monitored until the age of 18.

The study separates individuals according to their daily levels of IL-6 during periods of wellness. Each group; high, medium and low, was examined to determine the association of proteins in the blood stream and the occurrence of depressive or psychotic episodes.

The results clearly revealed that compared to individuals with low everyday protein levels, those with high daily levels of IL-6 were twice as likely to have suffered from an episode of depression or psychosis.
Published in JAMA Psychiatry, the research further indicates that the same trigger, increased blood proteins, also appears in people with type II diabetes and coronary heart disease. The significance of these inflammatory markers that result from the immune system’s response to childhood illness, could play a role in changing the way adults are treated for mental illness.

Further research is required, but primary indications solidify the belief that physical exercise and good nutrition, which are key to reducing the risk of heart disease, may also relieve the effects of depression and other chronic mental illnesses.

Examining the inflammatory markers (proteins) that remain in the blood stream after a childhood virus, could give medical professionals an indication of the likelihood of the child developing mental or physical health problems as they mature into adulthood. Not only could this lead to early intervention and treatment, but it may also suggest the use of anti-inflammatory protocols to treat mental health disorders.

More research is being conducted to support this concept, since the findings contradict the current idea that the blood-brain barrier prevents many of the proteins in blood from violating the central nervous system. However, early trial tests on mice are showing that the body may indeed find an alternate route to bypass the blood-brain barrier through the vagus nerve, which links the brain and abdomen.

Mike Bundrant is author of Your Achilles Eel: How to Overcome Negative Emotions, Bad Decisions and Self-Sabotage.

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