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Can a Chronic Inflammation Disease Cause Mental Illness?

written by Natasha Tracy B.Sc - Oct 10, 2017

Natasha Tracy is a professional writer and author of the book “Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar”. She currently works as a freelancer for Canadian pharmacy online and elsewhere..

Can a Chronic Inflammation Disease Cause Mental Illness?

The causes of mental illness are not well understood. Medicine currently believes that psychological, biological and environmental factors combine to produce a mental illness but the specifics of each of these factors is not clear. New information suggests that inflammation in the body may be part of the contributing biological factor to some instances of mental illness. This new information also points to a new way of treating mental illness and inflammation in the body.

What Is Inflammation?

Inflammation, very generally, is a body’s immune system’s response to something that may turn out to be dangerous such as a wound or infection. Acute inflammation signs at the site of a wound or infection include:

• Redness

• Heat

• Swelling

• Pain

• Loss of function

According to PubMed Health:

“There is a loss of function, for example, when the inflamed limb can no longer be moved properly or when the sense of smell is worse during a cold, or when it is more difficult to breathe when you have bronchitis.

This means that an inflammation does not start when a wound has been infected by bacteria, festers, or heals poorly, but already as the body is trying to fight against the harmful stimulus or a viral infection.”

If you do suffer from inflammation, other effects can be seen in the body. These include:

• General symptoms of feeling sick, exhaustion and fever: These symptoms are a sign that the immune defense is very active and needs a lot of energy.

• If the rate of metabolism is higher due to a fever, more defense substances and cells can be produced.

• Changes in the blood such as an increased number of defense cells.

These effects on the body are obviously negative but are short-lived and only there until the wound or infection is healed.

The Danger of Chronic Inflammation

While inflammation is a very important response the body has to dangerous stimuli, too much of this good thing can cause problems and additional symptoms. For example, sometimes the immune system fights against its own healthy cells and this can cause chronic inflammation conditions.

Examples of chronic inflammation conditions include:

• Rheumatoid arthritis: where many joints throughout the entire body are permanently inflamed and in pain

• Psoriasis: a chronic skin disease

• Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis: caused by Inflammation of the bowel

• Lupus: inflammation from Lupus can affect body systems such as your joints, skin, kidneys, blood cells, brain, heart and lungs

These illnesses are referred to as chronic inflammatory diseases and, unfortunately, they can be lifelong.

Chronic Inflammation Diseases and Mental Health Symptoms

While it was not always recognized, we now understand that chronic inflammation diseases commonly also have neuropsychiatric symptoms. Examples of these symptoms include:

• Anxiety

• Depression

• Headaches

• Seizures

• Psychosis (the presence of delusions and/or hallucinations)

Thanks to new research, it is now posited these symptoms arise from changes to the brain because of the inflammation disease.

Lupus and Mental Illness

Recently, researchers studied lupus patients to see if the immune system changes were directly causing mental illness symptoms due effects on the brain.

Lupus causes the body’s white blood cells to release type 1 interferon-alpha, which is a small cytokine protein that binds to receptor in different tissues causing additional immune system activity. This causes lupus symptoms including (but not limited to):

• Fatigue and fever

• Joint pain, stiffness and swelling

• Skin lesions that appear or worsen with sun exposure

• Shortness of breath

• Headaches, confusion and memory loss

• Mental illness such as depression or anxiety

It was not thought that the offending type 1 interferon-alpha, which is in the blood, could cross the blood-brain barrier and cause brain changes. However, a study from Boston’s Children Hospital has shown differently.

This study, done in mice, showed that enough interferon-alpha did cross the blood-brain barrier to cause changes in the brain. According to ScienceDaily:

“Once across the barrier, it launched microglia -- the immune defense cells of the CNS -- into attack mode on the brain's neuronal synapses. This caused synapses to be lost in the frontal cortex.”

And this, in turn, can cause the mental illnesses associated with this inflammation disease.

The scientists decided to see if administering a drug that blocks the excess interferon-alpha would reduce brain changes. Sure enough, when interferon-alpha was blocked, the changes in the brain were reduced as were the signs of mental illness like anxiety and cognitive deficits.

While more study is needed to confirm these results, as of now it appears that this new kind of drug may be useful in treating lupus and, possibly, mental illness.

Chronic Inflammation and Mental Illness

In short, this points to two main ideas:

1. Specific changes to the brain do, indeed, cause mental illness

2. There may be a new way to treat mental illnesses

Results will have to be replicated and built upon before these ideas are useful in humans, but it is a promising start.


Mayo Clinic, Lupus. Retrieved September 25, 2017.

PubMed Health, What Is an Inflammation? January 7, 2015.

ScienceDaily, Surprising New Link Between Inflammation and Mental Illness. June 14, 2017



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