Mold inhalation causes innate immune activation, neural, cognitive and emotional dysfunction

Brain Behav Immun. 2020 Jul:87:218-228. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2019.11.006. Epub 2019 Nov 18.


Individuals living or working in moldy buildings complain of a variety of health problems including pain, fatigue, increased anxiety, depression, and cognitive deficits. The ability of mold to cause such symptoms is controversial since no published research has examined the effects of controlled mold exposure on brain function or proposed a plausible mechanism of action. Patient symptoms following mold exposure are indistinguishable from those caused by innate immune activation following bacterial or viral exposure. We tested the hypothesis that repeated, quantified doses of both toxic and nontoxic mold stimuli would cause innate immune activation with concomitant neural effects and cognitive, emotional, and behavioral symptoms. We intranasally administered either 1) intact, toxic Stachybotrys spores; 2) extracted, nontoxic Stachybotrys spores; or 3) saline vehicle to mice. As predicted, intact spores increased interleukin-1β immunoreactivity in the hippocampus. Both spore types decreased neurogenesis and caused striking contextual memory deficits in young mice, while decreasing pain thresholds and enhancing auditory-cued memory in older mice. Nontoxic spores also increased anxiety-like behavior. Levels of hippocampal immune activation correlated with decreased neurogenesis, contextual memory deficits, and/or enhanced auditory-cued fear memory. Innate-immune activation may explain how both toxic mold and nontoxic mold skeletal elements caused cognitive and emotional dysfunction.

Keywords: Anxiety; Conditioned fear; Hippocampus; Interleukin-1β; Memory; Microglia; Neurogenesis; Neuroinflammation; Pain; Sickness behavior.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cognition
  • Hippocampus*
  • Immunity, Innate
  • Memory Disorders
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Neurogenesis*