Cytokines: abnormalities in major depression and implications for pharmacological treatment

Hum Psychopharmacol. 2004 Aug;19(6):397-403. doi: 10.1002/hup.609.


The role of cytokines in depression was first considered when the cytokine interferon resulted in "sickness behaviour", the symptoms of which are similar to those of major depression. The latter is associated with an increase in pro-inflammatory cytokines such as interleukin-1 (IL-1), interleukin-6 (IL-6) and tumour necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha). These cytokines are potent modulators of corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) which produces heightened hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) activity characterized by increases in ACTH and cortisol, both of which are reported elevated in major depression. Antidepressant treatment has immunomodulatory effects with increases in the production of IL-10, which is an anti-inflammatory cytokine. This review based on a Medline search from 1980-2003, focuses on the evidence available of cytokine changes in acute stress, chronic stress and major depression. It examines the effects of antidepressant treatment on immune parameters in both animal models and clinical trials. We suggest that future antidepressants may target the immune system by either blocking the actions of pro-inflammatory cytokines or increasing the production of anti-inflammatory cytokines.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antidepressive Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Cytokines / metabolism*
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / drug therapy*
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / immunology
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Immune System / metabolism
  • Neurosecretory Systems / metabolism
  • Serotonin / metabolism
  • Stress, Physiological / immunology
  • Stress, Physiological / metabolism


  • Antidepressive Agents
  • Cytokines
  • Serotonin