Neuroimmune Interactions: From the brain to the Immune system


The compromised immune system is the most harmful side effect of prolonged stress. Like most organisms on this earth, humans have a flight or fight response due to stress that causes increased heart rate and cortisol levels which, in the long term have a drastic effect on the immune system. This comes under the purview of a discipline known as psychoneuroimmunology. The subject studies the interaction between mental functions and the immune system and how they affect each other.

For the past year, the world has been going on about the immune system due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the crucial thing to note is that all the news, policies, and actions centred around it are to avoid COVID-19, not on how to improve one’s immune system. The field of psychoneuroimmunology is based on 3 levels mind, brain, and immune system. The focus is on how psychological factors interfere with the interaction between the nervous and immune systems. It is a new approach to health, curing, and preventing disease.

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The relationship between these three levels is really solid. Firstly, the symptoms of HIV-AIDS differ in some people- some live healthily with almost no presenting symptoms while the disease can take over someone’s body in a month. Several studies support that coping mechanisms, stress, and anxiety levels are clear-cut markers of the prognosis of HIV-AIDS.

The effect of chemotherapy also differs in patients depending upon their mental health, which has eventually led to the development of a new branch called psycho-oncology. Also, it is an expected protocol for the treatment of Alopecia Areata to rule out stress-related factors which add to the proof that one’s immune system can destroy their body cells. The symptoms of cold and fever in students increase during the exam period. Healing from any kind of physical injury or wound also depends on the behavioural and mental state of the person.

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All of this evidence contributed to the development of the relatively new field of Psychoneuroimmunology. The core hypothesis involving this is that psychological factors can cause progressive imbalances among multiple physiological systems which can be measured. The main interest of the field is the interaction between nervous and immune systems and the relationship between mental processes and health.

The basic functions of the immune system are identifying destroying and clearing foreign substances. Reacting too strongly or underreacting may lead to situations like allergies or cause cancer cells to multiply. These errors in the immune system are caused by mental health-related issues. Accordingly, the immune system gives its response which can be classified as innate and adaptive immunity. Innate immunity is a non-specific response irrespective of the type of foreign substance affecting the body, involving cells like mast cells.

Compared to this, adaptive immunity involves T-cells and B-cells and is a specific response after the body has learned more about the foreign substance disrupting its functioning. The non-specific response, the stimulus like injury or infection produces inflammation response in the body.

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Mediators like cytokines are produced at the site which causes pain and alerts the brain about it too. The role of cytokines is important in animal studies when inactivating them leads to the absence of sickness after infection and administering them leads to sickness without any infection. Afterwards, the blood vessels dilate, which increases the permeability and the speed at which antibodies can be directed there.

The body’s first line of defence in these conditions is a sickness response, like fever, reduction in food and water intake, exploration, sexual activity, and increase in anxiety. The interesting thing to note here is that these responses are similar to the ones exhibited typically in stressful conditions, i.e. the classical stress response. That is why, in an evolutionary sense, some level of stress enhances immunity.

One can deal with the stressful conditions that come with COVID-19 with some dos and don’ts. What one must do includes positive thinking, regular exercise, a balanced diet, a relaxation diet, having a daily routine, socializing (online), and taking a break from routine to name a few. On the other hand, the things one must avoid consist of substance use, too much fast food, excessive television, and online activity, partying, travel, posting and spreading fake news about COVID-19.

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Going back to history when gurukuls existed, where in addition to academics, sports, meditation, and yoga were practised to balance the students’ mental health. One’s productivity and education are affected by their health. The immune system, in a way, can be one’s sixth sense and its model can be emulated in the societal and national defences due to the accuracy of its functioning.

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