The endocannabinoid (eCB) system is one of the key players in immunoregulation, and reduced activity of the eCB system has been linked with depressive-like behaviours in animal studies and depression in clinical samples. There is a well-established link between immune activation and depression, such as following the administration of the pro-inflammatory cytokine, interferon-α (IFN-α), used to treat hepatitis C viral (HCV) infection. However, the role of peripheral endocannabinoids (eCBs), anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG), following immunotherapy with IFN-α and in IFN-α -induced depression, have not been examined yet.

In this study, we investigated whether circulating AEA and 2-AG were modified by treatment with IFN-α and whether they were involved in the development of IFN-α-induced depression. We also explored whether circulating eCBs were associated with peripheral cytokines during and after IFN-α treatment. We measured serum concentrations of AEA and 2-AG using High Performance Liquid Chromatography with Tandem Mass Spectrometry, and serum concentrations of cytokines using Meso Scale Discovery electrochemiluminescence V-PLEX assay, in 70 patients with HCV infection and 41 healthy subjects. We assessed HCV patients at baseline, IFN-α-treatment weeks (TW) 4 and 24, end of treatment (END) and at six months follow-up (FU). We assessed depression using M.I.N.I. International Neuropsychiatric Interview.

We found a different pattern of change in peripheral AEA and 2-AG during and after IFN-α treatment. Whilst 2-AG increased earlier in immunotherapy (TW4), remained elevated throughout treatment, and reduced at six months follow-up (FU), AEA increased later in treatment (TW24) and remained elevated six months post-treatment. We also found that baseline levels of AEA were lower in HCV patients compared with healthy controls, whereas there were no differences in 2-AG levels. Interestingly, AEA, but not 2-AG, was significantly, negatively correlated with interleukin (IL)-2 and IL-17a at six months follow-up. We did not find any difference in both eCBs between patients with and without IFN-α-induced depression, at any time point.

Our findings suggest that AEA and 2-AG are involved in different stages of immunoregulation following IFN-α treatment, where AEA might be involved in chronic inflammation. Lack of association between peripheral eCBs and IFN-α-induced depression suggests that different biological mechanisms may underpin inflammation-induced depression compared with classic “psychiatric” depression, or that any changes in the eCB system in depression may not be captured by peripheral AEA and 2-AG.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberBBI_2020_244
Pages (from-to)248-258
Number of pages11
JournalBrain Behavior and Immunity
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2020


  • 2-Aracgidonoylglycerol (2-AG)
  • Anandamide (AEA)
  • Cytokines
  • Depression
  • Endocannabinoid system
  • Hepatitis C
  • IFN-α-induced depression
  • Immune system
  • Inflammation
  • Interferon-α (IFN-α)


Dive into the research topics of 'Differential effect of Interferon-alpha treatment on AEA and 2-AG levels'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this