Results from laboratory tests in the current study showed that mice that were psychologically stressed for a short period of time about two hours prior to an immunization had significantly better immune responses than non-stressed mice when both groups of animals were re-exposed to the same antigen several months later.
"A brief feeling of stress at the time of immunization may enhance the immune system's long-term memory for an antigen," said Firdaus Dhabhar, the study's lead author and an associate professor of oral biology and molecular virology, immunology and medical genetics at Ohio State University .
"This enhanced immune response is likely to mean greater protection even further down the road," he said.
Researchers think that acute stress stress that lasts from minutes to hours may prime the immune system for oncoming trauma.
"In the case of skin wounds and infections, this kind of stress may improve immune function," Dhabhar said. "It may be nature's way of ensuring that the immune system provides heightened protection when we face possible injury or infection."
The study appears online in the "Articles in Press" section of the American Journal of Physiology Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology. Dhabhar conducted the study with Kavitha Viswanathan, a doctoral student in oral biology.
The current study is one of a number of studies conducted by researchers at Ohio State that examines how stress affects the immune system. While Dhabhar and his team have focused on the effects of acute stressors, he and other researchers have found that chronic stress may substantively weaken the immune system.