Seattle Post-Intelligencer
December 6, 2005


By Lee Bowman

A steady stream of irritations and upsets from people and things
around us can literally make us sick or slow to heal.

Psychological stress and physical ills have become so well linked over
the past few decades that researchers into the brain-immune system
connection have a name for the specialty -- psychoneuroimmunology.

Two studies published Monday further illustrate when and how stress
affects the immune system.

A report in the Archives of General Psychiatry finds that routine
marital discord can slow the body's ability to heal from trauma or
surgical wounds by as long as two days. The second study, by
Australian researchers working with mice, fingered a specific stress
hormone that appears to disrupt the work of immune cells.

In the first study, a team at Ohio State University led by Jan
Kiecolt-Glaser, a professor of psychiatry and psychology, and her
husband, immunology professor Ronald Glaser, found that married
couples who showed high levels of hostility to each other needed two
days longer to heal from wounds compared with couples whose hostility
levels were low. Even typical married couples who argue for just a
half hour slow their ability to heal from wounds by about one day.

The researchers, who have been doing stress-immunity work for 30
years, have mainly focused on the effects of long-term stressful
events. In this case, the stressor was a half-hour, staged "marital

"The fact that even this can bump the healing back an entire day for
minor wounds says that wound-healing is a really sensitive process,"
Kiecolt-Glaser said, noting that the effect is powerful enough for
hospitals to consider looking at stress-reduction interventions for
patients before surgery.

The experiment involved 42 married couples who had been together an
average of 12 years. Each couple made two, 24-hour visits to the
university's clinical research center, with two months passing between
visits. During each visit, both partners were fitted with a small
suction device that created eight tiny blisters on their arms, which
were then monitored for evidence of healing.

"The wounds on the hostile couples healed at only 60 percent of the
rate of couples considered to have low levels of hostility," Kiecolt-
Glaser said.

In the Australian study, researchers from the Garvan Institute of
Medical Research in Sydney focused on another immune-system regulator,
a hormone called neuropeptide Y (NPY), which normally activates and
shuts down the immune system as needed to fight infections.

"But during periods of stress, nerves release a lot of NPY and it gets
into the bloodstream, where it directly impacts on the cells of the
immune system," said Fabienne Mackay, lead author of the study
published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine.

The findings offer prospects for new treatment in people whose immune
systems are suppressed, as well as for people whose immune responses
turn against them in diseases such lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and
multiple sclerosis.

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