Depression and suicidality: A link to premature T helper cell aging and increased Th17 cells

Brain Behav Immun. 2020 Jul;87:603-609. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2020.02.005. Epub 2020 Feb 14.


Background: Previous research has demonstrated a strong link between immune system abnormalities and Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). High suicide risk is a major complication of MDD and has recently been linked to strong (neuro-)immune alterations, but little is known on the link between circulating immune cell composition and suicidal risk status.

Methods: Here, we assessed percentages of circulating peripheral blood mononuclear cells with focus on T helper cell subsets (memory T helper cells, Th1, Th2, Th17 and T regulatory cells) in a large and well-matched cohort of 153 patients diagnosed with MDD and 153 age and sex matched controls. We explored the association of these cell populations with suicide risk while accounting for age, sex, BMI, depression severity and childhood trauma.

Results: Patients with MDD had reduced percentages of NK cells, and higher percentages of B and T cells in line with current literature. Further exploration of T-cells revealed a robustly elevated number of memory T helper cells, regardless of age group. Patients at high risk for suicide had the highest memory T helper cells and additionally showed a robust increase of Th17 cells compared to other suicide risk groups.

Conclusions: The higher abundance of memory T helper cells points towards premature aging of the immune system in MDD patients, even during young adulthood. Patients at high risk for suicide show the clearest immune abnormalities and may represent a clinically relevant subtype of depression.

Keywords: Depression; Immunosenescence; Inflammation; Memory T cells; Suicide risk; Th17 cells.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aging
  • Aging, Premature*
  • Child
  • Depression
  • Depressive Disorder, Major*
  • Humans
  • Leukocytes, Mononuclear
  • Suicide*
  • T-Lymphocytes, Regulatory
  • Th1 Cells
  • Th17 Cells
  • Th2 Cells
  • Young Adult