Social Disruption Leads To Shorter Survival In Monkeys With AIDS

May 22, 1998

A new study strongly suggests that being separated from a familiar companion and having a change in housing is linked to shorter survival in monkeys infected with a virus that causes AIDS.

Moreover, such disruptions in living circumstances seem to have a more serious impact if they occur when a monkey is first infected rather than at later stages of the disease, according to John Capitanio, assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and co-author of the study published in the May-June issue of Psychosomatic Medicine.

Capitanio and co-author Nicholas Lerche found that monkeys separated from a familiar companion within 90 days before or 30 days after infection with the simian AIDS virus developed AIDS faster than the animals that did not experience separations. In addition, among those animals that experienced one or two changes in housing after inoculation, the closer the time of the inoculation to the housing change, the shorter the survival.

"Since early in the AIDS epidemic, psychologists have believed that social disruption in HIV-infected people could hasten the progression of the disease. These data provide strong support for that notion," said Capitanio.

The scientists collected data on monkeys inoculated with the simian immunodeficiency virus from four primate centers around the United States. The monkeys had been subjects in a variety of studies designed to understand how the virus, which is similar to HIV, leads to AIDS. The researchers also collected data on how often, and when, the monkeys' housing changed before and after their inoculations. Altogether, data on nearly 300 monkeys was gathered.

Although the retrospective nature of this study can't specifically address how social disruption leads to faster disease, the authors speculate that such disruption can activate the body's stress response systems. Stress-related hormone changes might stimulate the virus to reproduce more quickly, thereby speeding up the damage that the immune system experiences.

The authors caution that extrapolation from monkeys to humans should be done carefully, especially in a retrospective study such as this one. Nevertheless, the unusually large sample size, and the careful statistical control of possible confounding factors, provide compelling evidence that psychosocial factors can have a significant impact on immunodeficiency disease.

The study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Center for Research Resources.

Center for Advancing Health

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