Psychoneuroimmunology and Children

Alternative approaches to medical practices have been increases in recent years.  Some of these changes have been fueled by the study of how the body reacts and interacts to psychological process, the nervous system and the immune system.  This study known as psychoneuroimmunology incorporates a multiple disciplinary approach to how these bodily functions interact with one another.  The studies concentrate on how the immune system reacts when other aspects of the body are stressed or relaxed.

Beginnings of Psychoneuroimmunology

Similar to the conditioning responses of Pavlov’s dogs experiments Robert Ader began to experiment with illness-induced taster-aversion paradigm. Unaware of the Russian Pavlov’s experiments Ader utilized rats and a combination of saccharin mixed in water and a drug Cytoxan.  Cytoxan was known to cause nausea and taste aversion.  Ader had hypothesized that the different amounts of saccharin would affect taste aversion (Freeman, 2009).  His results showed that the rats that had been given larger amounts of Cytoxan ended up with suppressed immune systems.  He later joined with immunologist Nicholas Cohen to test new hypothesis about immunity.  The two conducted larger experiences with the conclusion that the immune system can be enhanced by a “consistent environmental event” (Freeman, 2009, p. 72).  Their studies were the beginning of other researchers questioning the link between conditioning and treatment for diseases.  The field of psychoneuroimmunology was then born and has continued to grow to present day, raising thoughts to how the body and mind are connected.

Current Areas of Interest in Psychoneuroimmunology

The field of psychoneuroimmunology has progressed and evolved from its original intentions. One of the current areas of research involves social research.  According to Freeman (2009) there are four social research areas: “social interaction and social support, effects of relationship passages, health effects of chronic stressors not directly related to relationships, and health effects of short-term stressors” (p. 88).  Research involving social interaction and social support exams the effects of human interaction or lack thereof.  This research looks at how these interactions correlate with physical and mental health. Research involving relationship passages looks at the changes in relationship statuses are effected by or are the cause of stress. Health effects of chronic stressors not directly related to relationships can occur when there are non relationship stressors such as environmental threats. Health effects of short-term stressors include life events such as traumatic event, health issues, or stress for a short lived period of time.

 There have been studies on children to look at the effects of stress and disease on their immune system. In one study researchers assessed the connection between child abuse, traumatic events and objective health indicators and alcohol use. The researchers recruited 668 adolescents from community and clinical sources. The adolescents were grouped according to trauma classes, whether they were a witness to violence or a victim of said violence. The researchers documented health-related systems, alcohol use disorders, physical findings, and blood tests. They reviewed health outcomes one year after the initial study and then again as a young adult. Within the blood tests examined the researchers looked at immunoglobulin levels, although these were not conducted during the young adult portion. The immunoglobulin levels were higher with the subjects that had a higher or more severe level of traumatic history. More health related symptoms were linked to those who had experienced a high level of trauma.  The higher level of trauma experiences was also found to be related to more weight gain, and stress-response immune system problems.   The study concluded that that child abuse was a predictor of poorer health related symptoms and attributed these to anxiety issues (Clark, Thatcher, & Martin, 2010).

Another area that can affect a child’s immune system is peer victimization and bullying. According to a study (Vernbert, Nelson, Fonagy, & Twemlow, 2011) repeated involvement as a target or perpetrator of aggression could compromise a child’s immune system over time though physiologic processes associated with stress” (p 843).  The study looked at the nursing logs to determine behavioral indictors of the children’s health needs. The study only looked at children whose visits to the nursing office were coded as being somatic, illness, or injury. Victimization of Self Scales were given to the children.  This five point likert scale questioned students about the last three months and any victimization that took place during that time period.   The study suggests that “chronic victimization may, in turn, increase the risk for immune compromise over time, leading to more frequent illnesses” (p. 846).

The physiological system of children can also be affected when they are abused or neglected as infants. These chronic stressors can cause dysregulation of body systems.  Katz, Sprang, and Cooke (2011) describe allostatic load as a “dynamic, interactive process in which multiple physiological systems regulate metabolic activities to adapt to changing environmental demands” (p. 160).   In one case records were reviewed of a child who has been severely neglected as an infant. The child had been diagnosed as failure to thrive as infant and also exhibited symptoms of reactive attachment disorder.  The child was placed in foster care as an infant.  She began to have respiratory problems including distress, high fever, pneumonia, and apnea.  She was subsequently placed in pediatric intensive care. Within the following six months the child regressed in developmental areas and continued to be sick, including another upper respiratory infection.  The child died shortly after this infection was diagnosed.

The authors of the article questions whether the “severe, frequent, and chronic challenges that Casey endured in her young life likely led to cumulative strain overtime on multiple organs and tissues, which can be conceptualized as allostatic load” ( p. 165). The authors suggest that this chronic stress may have led to immunosuppression issues as speculated in adults with extreme stress.   The study had several limitations including its limit to one case, and a lack of medical testing to show changes in the immune system.  Although the article speculated that the child’s cortisol levels had probably changed, there was no testing of the levels while the child was alive.  Although this article was simply based on one case, and case worker notes, it brings to light the effects of neglect on infant children and the physiological changes that may occur because of this neglect.  Further studies with a larger population and medical testing would be needed to offer any concrete conclusions to the correlations between child neglect and allostatic load.


Clark, D.B., Thatcher, D. L., & Martin, C.S.  (2010) .Child abuse and other traumatic

experiences, alcohol use disorders and health problems in adolescence and young

adulthood. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 35(5), 499-510.

Freeman, L. (2009). Mosby’s complementary and alternative medicine: A research based

approach (3rd ed.). St. Louis, MO: Mosby Elsevier.

Katz, D. A., Sprang, G. & Cooke, C. (2011). Allostatic load and child maltreatment in infancy.

Clinical Case Studies, 10 (2), 159-172. doi.10.1177/1534650111399121

Vernberg, E. M., Nelson, T. D, Fonagy, P. & Twemlow, S.W. (2011). Victimization, aggression, and visits to the school nurse for somatic complaints, illnesses, and physical injuries. Pediatrics, 127, 842-848. doi: 10.1542/ped.2009-3415

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