Cytokine-associated emotional and cognitive disturbances in humans

A. Reichenberg, R. Yirmiya*, A. Schuld, T. Kraus, M. Haack, A. Morag, T. Pollmächer

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1130 Scopus citations


Background: Infectious, autoimmune, and neurodegenerative diseases are associated with profound psychological disturbances. Studies in animals clearly demonstrate that cytokines mediate illness-associated behavioral changes. However, the mechanisms underlying the respective psychological alterations in humans have not been established yet. Therefore, we investigated the effects of low-dose endotoxemia, a well-established and safe model of host-defense activation, on emotional, cognitive, immunological, and endocrine parameters. Methods: In a double-blind, crossover study, 20 healthy male volunteers completed psychological questionnaires and neuropsychological tests 1, 3, and 9 hours after intravenous injection of Salmonella abortus equi endotoxin (0.8 ng/kg) or saline in 2 experimental sessions. Blood samples were collected hourly, and rectal temperature and heart rate were monitored continuously. Results: Endotoxin had no effects on physical sickness symptoms, blood pressure, or heart rate. Endotoxin caused a mild increase in rectal temperature (0.5°C), and increased the circulating levels of tumor necrosis factor α (TNF-α), soluble TNF receptors, interleukin (IL)-6, IL-1 receptor antagonist, and cortisol. After endotoxin administration, the subjects showed a transient significant increase in the levels of anxiety (effect size [ES] = 0.55) and depressed mood (ES=0.66). Verbal and nonverbal memory functions were significantly decreased (ES = 0.55 to 0.64). Significant positive correlations were found between cytokine secretion and endotoxin-induced anxiety (r=0.49 to r=0.60), depressed mood (r = 0.40 to r = 0.75), and decreases in memory performance (r= 0.46 to r=0.68). Conclusions: In humans, a mild stimulation of the primary host defense has negative effects on emotional and memory functions, which are probably caused by cytokine release. Hence, cytokines represent a novel target for neuropsychopharmacological research.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)445-452
Number of pages8
JournalArchives of General Psychiatry
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2001


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