Stress-induced redistribution of immune cells--from barracks to boulevards to battlefields: a tale of three hormones--Curt Richter Award winner

Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2012 Sep;37(9):1345-68. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2012.05.008. Epub 2012 Jun 22.


Background: The surveillance and effector functions of the immune system are critically dependent on the appropriate distribution of immune cells in the body. An acute or short-term stress response induces a rapid and significant redistribution of immune cells among different body compartments. Stress-induced leukocyte redistribution may be a fundamental survival response that directs leukocyte subpopulations to specific target organs during stress, and significantly enhances the speed, efficacy and regulation of an immune response. Immune responses are generally enhanced in compartments (e.g., skin) that are enriched with leukocytes, and suppressed in compartments that are depleted of leukocytes during/following stress. The experiments described here were designed to elucidate the: (1) Time-course, trajectory, and subpopulation-specificity of stress-induced mobilization and trafficking of blood leukocytes. (2) Individual and combined actions of the principal stress hormones, norepinephrine (NE), epinephrine (EPI), and corticosterone (CORT), in mediating mobilization or trafficking of specific leukocyte subpopulations. (3) Effects of stress/stress hormones on adhesion molecule, L-selectin (CD62L), expression by each subpopulation to assess its adhesion/functional/maturation status.

Methods: Male Sprague Dawley rats were stressed (short-term restraint, 2-120 min), or adrenalectomized and injected with vehicle (VEH), NE, EPI, CORT, or their combinations, and blood was collected for measurement of hormones and flow cytometric quantification of leukocyte subpopulations.

Results: Acute stress induced an early increase/mobilization of neutrophils, lymphocytes, helper T cells (Th), cytolytic T cells (CTL), and B cells into the blood, followed by a decrease/trafficking of all cell types out of the blood, except neutrophil numbers that continued to increase. CD62L expression was increased on neutrophils, decreased on Th, CTL, and natural killer (NK) cells, and showed a biphasic decrease on monocytes & B cells, suggesting that CD62L is involved in mediating the redistribution effects of stress. Additionally, we observed significant differences in the direction, magnitude, and subpopulation specificity of the effects of each hormone: NE increased leukocyte numbers, most notably CD62L⁻/⁺ neutrophils and CD62L⁻ B cells. EPI increased monocyte and neutrophil numbers, most notably CD62L⁻/⁺ neutrophils and CD62L⁻ monocytes, but decreased lymphocyte numbers with CD62L⁻/⁺ CTL and CD62L⁺ B cells being especially sensitive. CORT decreased monocyte, lymphocyte, Th, CTL, and B cell numbers with CD62L⁻ and CD62L⁺ cells being equally affected. Thus, naïve (CD62L⁺) vs. memory (CD62L⁻) T cells, classical (CD62L⁺) vs. non-classical (CD62L⁻) monocytes, and similarly distinct functional subsets of other leukocyte populations are differentially mobilized into the blood and trafficked to tissues by stress hormones.

Conclusion: Stress hormones orchestrate a large-scale redistribution of immune cells in the body. NE and EPI mobilize immune cells into the bloodstream, and EPI and CORT induce traffic out of the blood possibly to tissue surveillance pathways, lymphoid tissues, and sites of ongoing or de novo immune activation. Immune cell subpopulations appear to show differential sensitivities and redistribution responses to each hormone depending on the type of leukocyte (neutrophil, monocyte or lymphocyte) and its maturation/functional characteristics (e.g., non-classical/resident or classical/inflammatory monocyte, naïve or central/effector memory T cell). Thus, stress hormones could be administered simultaneously or sequentially to induce specific leukocyte subpopulations to be mobilized into the blood, or to traffic from blood to tissues. Stress- or stress hormone-mediated changes in immune cell distribution could be clinically harnessed to: (1) Direct leukocytes to sites of vaccination, wound healing, infection, or cancer and thereby enhance protective immunity. (2) Reduce leukocyte traffic to sites of inflammatory/autoimmune reactions. (3) Sequester immune cells in relatively protected compartments to minimize exposure to cytotoxic treatments like radiation or localized chemotherapy. (4) Measure biological resistance/sensitivity to stress hormones in vivo. In keeping with the guidelines for Richter Award manuscripts, in addition to original data we also present a model and synthesis of findings in the context of the literature on the effects of short-term stress on immune cell distribution and function.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adrenalectomy
  • Animals
  • Catecholamines / blood*
  • Cell Movement / immunology
  • Corticosterone / blood*
  • Epinephrine / blood*
  • Immune System / immunology
  • L-Selectin / metabolism
  • Leukocyte Count
  • Leukocytes / immunology*
  • Leukocytes / metabolism
  • Male
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Restraint, Physical
  • Stress, Physiological / immunology*
  • Stress, Psychological / blood
  • Stress, Psychological / immunology*


  • Catecholamines
  • L-Selectin
  • Corticosterone
  • Epinephrine