Changes of natural killer cells during acute psychological stress


Emotional stress is often followed by increased susceptibility to infections. One major role in the immediate immune response to infection is played by natural killer (NK) cells. This study was designed to establish whether acute psychological stress influences cellular immune functions and to elucidate the role of endocrine parameters as potent mediators of stress induced alterations of the immune system. Forty-five first-time tandem parachutists were examined continuously for their plasma concentrations of cortisol and catecholamines from 120 min before to 60 min after jumping. Lymphocyte subsets, NK activity, and ADCC were determined 2 hr before, immediately after, and 1 hr after jumping. There was a significant increase in sympathetic-adrenal hormones during (adrenaline, noradrenaline) and shortly after jumping (cortisol). Lymphocyte subsets and the functional capacity of NK cells revealed an increase immediately after jumping followed by a decrease significantly below starting values 1 hr later. These changes were significantly correlated to plasma concentrations of noradrenaline. Thus, quick mobilization of NK cells is suggested as one major mechanism for this effective adaptation of the immune system to stress situations.

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Correspondence to Manfred Schedlowski.

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Schedlowski, M., Jacobs, R., Stratmann, G. et al. Changes of natural killer cells during acute psychological stress. J Clin Immunol 13, 119–126 (1993).

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Key words

  • Stress
  • natural killer cells
  • catecholamines
  • cortisol
  • parachute jumping