THE EFFECTS OF CHILDHOOD ADVERSITY ON THE IMMUNE SYSTEM AND ADDICTION
- August 20, 2018
According to a study done by researchers at the IRCCS (Scientific Institute for Research and Healthcare) accredited Santa Lucia Foundation and the Sapienza University of Rome in Italy, exposure to stress early in life can alter the structure of immune cells and inflammatory signals, which leads to increased drug-seeking behavior. The study was conducted on mice, who were subject to psychosocial stress, which is a type of stress that is caused by social situations. Psychosocial stress occurs when we look at a perceived threat and try to determine what can be done about it, and problems arise when there’s an imbalance between the demands placed upon us and our ability to deal with them.
The results, published in Biological Psychiatry, showed that psychosocial stress early in life, or a difficult childhood in general for humans, can increase the immune response to cocaine in adulthood. The study showed that mice and humans have a shared mechanism in the role of the immune response when it comes to the effects of stress early in life on cocaine sensitivity. The two-week-old mice were introduced to stress in the form of a threatening male mouse, and the researchers then took scans of their brains. The structure of certain brain immune cells called microglia were altered in an area of the brain called the ventral tegmental area, which is a region that plays a key role in the reward system and drug-seeking. The microglia also showed an increased response to cocaine. In the peripheral immune system, early psychosocial stress increased the release of inflammatory molecules from white blood cells. Inflammation is a response triggered by injury to or destruction of tissue, and the white blood cells migrate to the damaged area. This process was further amplified by exposure to cocaine.
The immune system mediates the effects of psychostimulant drugs, such as cocaine and methamphetamine, which have medical purposes but also considerable abuse potential. Previous studies have shown that the immune system may be able to recognize psychostimulant drugs and boost the body’s tolerance of them. Animals injected with methamphetamine developed antibodies (proteins used by the immune system to neutralize pathogens, such as bacteria and viruses) to the drug. Ordinarily, developing antibodies is a good thing – it’s how vaccines work, by building up the body’s tolerance to an invading pathogen. However, when the antibody is to a drug, it means that people who abuse that drug will need more and more of it to feel its effects.
Up to 50 percent of people who suffer some form of maltreatment in childhood eventually develop a substance use disorder. These findings suggest that this early adversity triggers responses by the immune system, increasing susceptibility to the effects of cocaine in adulthood.
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