The IL-6 antagonist tocilizumab is associated with worse depression and related symptoms in the medically ill

Transl Psychiatry. 2021 Jan 18;11(1):58. doi: 10.1038/s41398-020-01164-y.


Because medical illness is associated with increased inflammation and an increased risk for treatment-resistant major depressive disorder, anti-cytokine therapy may represent a novel, and especially efficacious, treatment for depression. We hypothesized that blockade of the interleukin (IL)-6 signaling pathway with tocilizumab would decrease depression and related symptomatology in a longitudinal cohort of allogeneic hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HCT) patients, a medically ill population with a significant inflammation and psychopathology. Patients undergoing allogeneic HCT received either a single dose of tocilizumab one day prior to HCT (n = 25), or HCT alone (n = 62). The primary outcome included depressive symptoms at 28 days post HCT; anxiety, fatigue, sleep, and pain were assessed at pretreatment baseline and days +28, +100, and +180 post HCT as secondary outcomes. Multivariate regression demonstrated that preemptive treatment with tocilizumab was associated with significantly higher depression scores at D28 vs. the comparison group (β = 5.74; 95% CI 0.75, 10.73; P = 0.03). Even after adjustment for baseline depressive symptoms, propensity score, and presence of acute graft-versus-host disease (grades II-IV) and other baseline covariates, the tocilizumab-exposed group continued to have significantly higher depression scores compared to the nonexposed group at D28 (β = 4.73; 95% CI 0.64, 8.81; P = 0.02). Despite evidence that IL-6 antagonism would be beneficial, blockade of the IL-6 receptor with tocilizumab among medically ill patients resulted in significantly more-not less-depressive symptoms.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Antibodies, Monoclonal, Humanized / adverse effects*
  • Depression / chemically induced*
  • Graft vs Host Disease*
  • Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation
  • Humans
  • Interleukin-6 / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Transplant Recipients / psychology


  • Antibodies, Monoclonal, Humanized
  • Interleukin-6
  • tocilizumab