Psychosocial Interventions and Immune System Function: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials

JAMA Psychiatry. 2020 Oct 1;77(10):1031-1043. doi: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2020.0431.


Importance: Recent estimates suggest that more than 50% of all deaths worldwide are currently attributable to inflammation-related diseases. Psychosocial interventions may represent a potentially useful strategy for addressing this global public health problem, but which types of interventions reliably improve immune system function, under what conditions, and for whom are unknown.

Objective: To address this issue, we conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials (RCTs) in which we estimated associations between 8 different psychosocial interventions and 7 markers of immune system function, and examined 9 potential moderating factors.

Data sources: PubMed, Scopus, PsycInfo, and databases were systematically searched from February 1, 2017, to December 31, 2018, for all relevant RCTs published through December 31, 2018.

Study selection: Eligible RCTs included a psychosocial intervention, immune outcome, and preintervention and postintervention immunologic assessments. Studies were independently examined by 2 investigators. Of 4621 studies identified, 62 were eligible and 56 included.

Data extraction and synthesis: Data were extracted and analyzed from January 1, 2019, to July 29, 2019. The Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-analyses (PRISMA) guideline was followed. Data were extracted by 2 investigators who were blind to study hypotheses and analyses, and were then analyzed using robust variance estimation. Analysis included 8 psychosocial interventions (behavior therapy, cognitive therapy, cognitive behavior therapy [CBT], CBT plus additive treatment or mode of delivery that augmented the CBT, bereavement or supportive therapy, multiple or combined interventions, other psychotherapy, and psychoeducation), 7 immune outcomes (proinflammatory cytokine or marker levels, anti-inflammatory cytokine levels, antibody levels, immune cell counts, natural killer cell activity, viral load, and other immune outcomes), and 9 moderating factors (intervention type, intervention format, intervention length, immune marker type, basal vs stimulated markers, immune marker measurement timing, disease state or reason for treatment, age, and sex).

Main outcomes and measures: The primary a priori outcomes were pretest-posttest-control (ppc) group effect sizes (ppc g) for the 7 immunologic outcomes investigated.

Results: Across 56 RCTs and 4060 participants, psychosocial interventions were associated with enhanced immune system function (ppc g = 0.30, 95% CI, 0.21-0.40; t50.9 = 6.22; P < .001). Overall, being randomly assigned to a psychosocial intervention condition vs a control condition was associated with a 14.7% (95% CI, 5.7%-23.8%) improvement in beneficial immune system function and an 18.0% (95% CI, 7.2%-28.8%) decrease in harmful immune system function over time. These associations persisted for at least 6 months following treatment and were robust across age, sex, and intervention duration. These associations were most reliable for CBT (ppc g = 0.33, 95% CI, 0.19-0.47; t27.2 = 4.82; P < .001) and multiple or combined interventions (ppc g = 0.52, 95% CI, 0.17-0.88; t5.7 = 3.63; P = .01), and for studies that assessed proinflammatory cytokines or markers (ppc g = 0.33, 95% CI, 0.19-0.48; t25.6 = 4.70; P < .001).

Conclusions and relevance: These findings suggest that psychosocial interventions are reliably associated with enhanced immune system function and may therefore represent a viable strategy for improving immune-related health.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Biomarkers / blood
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Combined Modality Therapy
  • Correlation of Data
  • Hospice Care
  • Immune System / immunology*
  • Immune System Diseases / immunology
  • Immune System Diseases / psychology
  • Immune System Diseases / therapy*
  • Patient Education as Topic
  • Psychosocial Intervention / methods*
  • Psychosocial Support Systems
  • Psychotherapy
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic


  • Biomarkers