Friday, 12 March 2010

Kiecolt-Glaser et al (1984) - exam stress and the immune system

Janice Kiecolt-Glaser is a pioneer in the area of psychoneuroimmunology - the study of how psychological processes affect the immune system.

In this study, of great relevance to students as well as the population as a whole, Kiecolt-Glaser et al. (1984) found studied the immune function of medical students during their exams, taking blood samples a month before and on the day of their first exam.

Exams are one of the greatest and most predictable
sources of stress for students.

Levels of virus-fighting 'killer-T' leucocytes (white blood cells) was significantly reduced in the second sample. Participants also completed psychological questionnaires, and the difference in blood counts was greatest for those who reported highest levels of anxienty and social isolation.

The main conclusion seems to be that the processes involved in stress have an effect on the body which can be harmful to health.  In the fight-or-flight response, hormones are released which boost an individual's chances of short-term survival in a fight or pursuit.  The long-term effect of this may be harmful.  But in our evolutionary past, most stressors were short-lived - unlike a university exam schedule.

Unfortunately, modern humans have to live with a stone-age response to modern stressors.


Kiecolt-Glaser, J.K., Garner, W., Speicher, C.E., Penn, G.M., Holliday, J., and Glaser, R. (1984). Psychosocial modifiers of immunocompetence in medical students. Psychosomatic Medicine, 46, 7-14.

See also: Modern day stress, and the benefits of meditation.


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