Chronic intermittent cold stress sensitizes neuro-immune reactivity in the rat brain

Milena Girotti, Jennifer J. Donegan, David A. Morilak

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

56 Scopus citations


Chronic stress contributes to many neuropsychiatric disorders in which the HPA axis, cognition and neuro-immune activity are dysregulated. Patients with major depression, or healthy individuals subjected to acute stress, present elevated levels of circulating pro-inflammatory markers. Acute stress also activates pro-inflammatory signals in the periphery and in the brain of rodents. However, despite the clear relevance of chronic stress to human psychopathology, the effects of prolonged stress exposure on central immune activity and reactivity have not been well characterized. Our laboratory has previously shown that, in rats, chronic intermittent cold stress (CIC stress, 4. °C, 6 h/day, 14 days) sensitizes the HPA response to a subsequent novel stressor, and produces deficits in a test of cognitive flexibility that is dependent upon prefrontal cortical function. We have hypothesized that CIC stress could potentially exert some of these effects by altering the neuro-immune status of the brain, leading to neuronal dysfunction. In this study, we have begun to address this question by determining whether previous exposure to CIC stress could alter the subsequent neuro-immune response to an acute immunological challenge (lipopolysaccharide, LPS) or an acute heterologous stressor (footshock). We examined the response of the pro-inflammatory cytokines, IL1β and IL6, the enzyme cyclooxygenase 2, and the chemokines, CXCL1 and MCP-1 in plasma, hypothalamus and prefrontal cortex. There was no effect of CIC stress on basal expression of these markers 24 h after the termination of stress. However, CIC stress enhanced the acute induction of the pro-inflammatory cytokines, IL1β and particularly IL6, and the chemokines, CXCL1 and MCP-1, in plasma, hypothalamus and prefrontal cortex in response to LPS, and also sensitized the hypothalamic IL1β response to acute footshock. Thus, sensitization of acute pro-inflammatory responses in the brain could potentially mediate some of the CIC-dependent changes in HPA and cognitive function.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1164-1174
Number of pages11
Issue number8
StatePublished - Sep 2011


  • Chronic stress
  • Cytokines
  • Footshock
  • Hypothalamus
  • Lipopolysaccharide
  • Prefrontal cortex

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry
  • Endocrinology
  • Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism


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