Stress is strongly associated with several mental and physical health problems that involve inflammation, including asthma, cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, and depression. It has been hypothesized that better cognitive control of emotional information may lead to reduced inflammatory reactivity to stress and thus better health, but to date no studies have examined whether differences in cognitive control predict pro-inflammatory cytokine responses to stress. To address this issue, we conducted a laboratory-based experimental study in which we randomly assigned healthy young-adult females to either an acute emotional stress (emotionally evocative video) or no-stress (control video) condition. Salivary levels of the key pro-inflammatory cytokines IL-1β, IL-6, and IL-8 were measured before and after the experimental manipulation, and following the last cytokine sample, we assessed participants' cognitive control of emotional information using an emotional Stroop task. We also assessed participants' cortisol levels before and after the manipulation to verify that documented effects were specific to cytokines and not simply due to increased nonwater salivary output. As hypothesized, the emotional stressor triggered significant increases in IL-1β, IL-6, and IL-8. Moreover, even in fully adjusted models, better cognitive control following the emotional (but not control) video predicted less pronounced cytokine responses to that stressor. In contrast, no effects were observed for cortisol. These data thus indicate that better cognitive control specifically following an emotional stressor is uniquely associated with less pronounced pro-inflammatory cytokine reactivity to such stress. These findings may therefore help explain why superior cognitive control portends better health over the lifespan.
Keywords: Life stress; Stroop; cognition; cortisol; cytokine; disease; emotion; health; inflammation; risk.