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The Cutting Edge

Stress Gets under Our Skin

EVERYONE EXPERIENCES SOCIAL STRESS, whether it is job-interview jitters, party angst or stage fright while delivering a speech. UCLA researchers have discovered that how our brains respond to social stressors can influence the body’s immune system in ways that may negatively affect health.

In a study published in the August 2010 online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, George Slavich, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, and Shelley Taylor, Ph.D., professor of psychology, show that individuals who exhibit greater neural sensitivity to social rejection also exhibit greater increases in inflammatory activity to social stress. This characteristic in turn can increase the risk of a variety of disorders, including asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer and depression.

But why would neural sensitivity to social stress cause an increase in inflammation? One possible explanation suggested by the authors is that since physical threats have historically gone hand in hand with social threat or rejection, inflammation may be triggered in anticipation of a physical injury. Inflammatory cytokines – proteins that regulate the immune system – are released in response to impending (or actual) physical assault because they accelerate wound-healing and reduce the risk of infection.


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