, Volume 65, Issue 11, pp 1493–1520

Immunological Aetiology of Major Psychiatric Disorders

Evidence and Therapeutic Implications
Review Article


Historically, immunological research in psychiatry was based on empirical findings and early epidemiological studies indicating a possible relationship between psychiatric symptoms and acute infectious diseases. However, aetiopathological explanations for psychiatric disorders are no longer closely related to acute infection. Nevertheless, immune hypotheses have been discussed in schizophrenia, affective disorders and infantile autism in the last decades.

Although the variability between the results of the epidemiological studies conducted to date is strikingly high, there is still some evidence that the immune system might play a role in the aetiopathogenesis of these three psychiatric diseases, at least in subgroups of patients. In anxiety disorders immunological research is still very much in its infancy, and the few and inconsistent data of immune changes in these patients are believed to reflect the influence of short- or long-term stress exposure. Nevertheless, there are also some hints raising the possibility that autoimmune mechanisms could interrupt neurotransmission, which would be of significance in certain patients with anxiety and panic disorders. Drug and alcohol (ethanol) dependence are not believed to be primarily influenced by an immunological aetiology. On the other hand, immune reactions due to different drugs of abuse and alcohol may directly or indirectly influence the course of concomitant somatic diseases. In different organic brain disorders the underlying somatic disease is defined as a primary immune or autoimmune disorder, for instance HIV infection or systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). For other neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease, immunoae-tiopathological mechanisms are supported by experimental and clinical studies.

Treatment strategies based on immune mechanisms have been investigated in patients with schizophrenia and affective disorders. Furthermore, some antipsychotics and most antidepressants are known to have direct or indirect effects on the immune system. Different immunotherapies have been used in autism, including transfer factor, pentoxifylline, intravenous immunoglobulins and corticosteroids. Immunosuppressive and/or immunomodulating agents are well established methods for treating the neuropsychiatric sequelae of immune or autoimmune disorders, for example AIDS and SLE. Therapeutic approaches in Alzheimer’s disease also apply immunological methods such as strategies of active/passive immunisation and NSAIDs.

Considering the comprehensive interactive network between mind and body, future research should focus on approaches linking targets of the different involved systems.


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© Adis Data Information BV 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Biological PsychiatryInnsbruck University ClinicsInnsbruckAustria

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