Acute peripheral inflammation with corresponding increases in peripheral cytokines affects neuropsychological functions and induces depression-like symptoms. However, possible effects of increased immune responses on social cognition remain unknown. Therefore, this study investigated the effects of experimentally induced acute inflammation on performance and neural responses during a social cognition task assessing Theory of Mind (ToM) ability. In this double-blind randomized crossover functional magnetic resonance imaging study, 18 healthy right-handed male volunteers received an injection of bacterial lipopolysaccharide (LPS; 0.4 ng/kg) or saline, respectively. Plasma levels of pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokines as well as mood ratings were analyzed together with brain activation during a validated ToM task (i.e. Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test). LPS administration induced pronounced transient increases in pro- (IL-6, TNF-α) and anti-inflammatory (IL-10, IL-1ra) cytokines as well as decreases in mood. Social cognition performance was not affected by acute inflammation. However, altered neural activity was observed during the ToM task after LPS administration, reflected by increased responses in the fusiform gyrus, temporo-parietal junction, superior temporal gyrus and precuneus. The increased task-related neural responses in the LPS condition may reflect a compensatory strategy or a greater social cognitive processing as a function of sickness.
Keywords: cytokines; endotoxin; fMRI; peripheral inflammation; social cognition.
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