Stress-induced augmentation of immune function - The role of stress hormones, leukocyte trafficking, and cytokines

Firdaus S. Dhabhar

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

317 Scopus citations


Delayed-type hypersensitivity (DTH) reactions represent cell-mediated immune responses that exert important immunoprotective (resistance to viruses, bacteria, and fungi) or immunopathological (allergic or autoimmune hypersensitivity) effects. We initially utilized the skin DTH response as an experimental in vivo model to study neuro-endocrine-immune interactions in rodents. We hypothesized that just as an acute stress response prepares the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems for fight or flight, it may also prepare the immune system for challenges which may be imposed by a stressor. The skin DTH model allowed us to examine the effects of stress at the time of primary and secondary exposure to antigen. Studies showed that acute (2 h) stress experienced before primary or secondary antigen exposure induces a significant enhancement of skin DTH. Importantly, this enhancement involved innate as well as adaptive immune mechanisms. Adrenalectomy eliminated the stress-induced enhancement of DTH. Acute administration of physiological (stress) concentrations of corticosterone and/or epinephrine to adrenalectomized animals enhanced skin DTH. Compared with controls, DTH sites from acutely stressed or hormone-injected animals showed significantly greater erythema and induration, numbers of infiltrating leukocytes, and levels of cytokine gene expression. In contrast to acute stress, chronic stress was immunosuppressive. Chronic exposure to corticosterone, or acute exposure to dexamethasone significantly suppressed skin DTH. These results suggest that during acute stress, endogenous stress hormones enhance skin immunity by increasing leukocyte trafficking and cytokine gene expression at the site of antigen entry. While these results are discussed from a mechanistic and clinical relevance perspective, it is acknowledged that much work remains to be done to elucidate the precise mechanisms mediating these bi-directional effects of stress and stress hormones and their clinical ramifications.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)785-798
Number of pages14
JournalBrain, Behavior, and Immunity
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2002
Externally publishedYes


  • Cell-mediated immunity
  • Corticosterone
  • Cytokine
  • Delayed-type hypersensitivity
  • Epinephrine
  • Immune activation
  • Leukocyte trafficking
  • Skin immunity
  • Stress
  • γ interferon

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Immunology
  • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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