Bioethics Blogs

"Inflammation might be causing depression": Stigma of mental illness, reductionism, and (mis-)representations of science

by Katie Givens Kime
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Is depression a Kind of Allergic Reaction?” Provocative headlines like these appear throughout popular media. Besides misrepresenting scientific findings, such journalistic coverage impacts perceptions of mental illness, as well as expectations of those seeking treatment. In last month’s Neuroethics in the News talk, Dr. Jennifer Felger, from Emory’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, shared her experiences and insights on the translation (and mistranslation) of research by journalists. In relating the story of her own interactions with the media, Felger emphasized the complex and varying transactional relationships between journalists and scientists. The impact of such coverage carries notable neuroethical dimensions, potentially affecting the capacity for agency and/or aspects of a sense of self for a person experiencing mental illness.

The work of Felger and others on the role of inflammation in depression emerges from widespread observations that stress and other psychological experiences, particularly chronic stress, can weaken immune responses, leaving individuals more susceptible to illness. Such vulnerability can lead to common illnesses, like colds and flus, or even contribute to major illnesses, like cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory illnesses. On the other hand, once the immune system is activated by disease, stress, trauma, or even treatments for medical illness (e.g. chemotherapy), activated immune cells can release inflammatory mediators like cytokines. These mediators, along with the immune cells, can move into the brain, affecting neurotransmitter function, leading to behavioral changes, and even causing clinical depression.
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The particular area of research for Felger and some of her colleagues involved examining the mechanisms of cytokine action on the brain, and determining how cytokine action can lead to specific depressive symptom clusters.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.