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Differential effect of Interferon-alpha treatment on AEA and 2-AG levels

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Original languageEnglish
Article numberBBI_2020_244
Pages (from-to)248-258
Number of pages11
JournalBrain Behavior and Immunity
Accepted/In press26 Aug 2020
PublishedNov 2020

King's Authors


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.

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