Context: Inflammation is increasingly recognized as contributing to the pathogenesis of major depressive disorder (MDD), even in individuals who are otherwise medically healthy. Most studies in search of sources for this increased inflammation have focused on factors such as psychosocial stress and obesity that are known to activate inflammatory processes and increase the risk for depression. However, MDD may be so prevalent in the modern world not just because proinflammatory factors are widespread, but also because we have lost contact with previously available sources of anti-inflammatory, immunoregulatory signaling.
Objective: To examine evidence that disruptions in coevolved relationships with a variety of tolerogenic microorganisms that were previously ubiquitous in soil, food, and the gut, but that are largely missing from industrialized societies, may contribute to increasing rates of MDD in the modern world.
Data sources: Relevant studies were identified using PubMed and Ovid MEDLINE.
Study selection: Included were laboratory animal and human studies relevant to immune functioning, the hygiene hypothesis, and major depressive disorder identified via PubMed and Ovid MEDLINE searches.
Data extraction: Studies were reviewed by all authors, and data considered to be potentially relevant to the contribution of hygiene-related immune variables to major depressive disorder were extracted.
Data synthesis: Significant data suggest that a variety of microorganisms (frequently referred to as the "old friends") were tasked by coevolutionary processes with training the human immune system to tolerate a wide array of non-threatening but potentially proinflammatory stimuli. Lacking such immune training, vulnerable individuals in the modern world are at significantly increased risk of mounting inappropriate inflammatory attacks on harmless environmental antigens (leading to asthma), benign food contents and commensals in the gut (leading to inflammatory bowel disease), or self-antigens (leading to any of a host of autoimmune diseases). Loss of exposure to the old friends may promote MDD by increasing background levels of depressogenic cytokines and may predispose vulnerable individuals in industrialized societies to mount inappropriately aggressive inflammatory responses to psychosocial stressors, again leading to increased rates of depression.
Conclusion: Measured exposure to the old friends or their antigens may offer promise for the prevention and treatment of MDD in modern industrialized societies.