Interpersonal life stress, inflammation, and depression in adolescence: Testing Social Signal Transduction Theory of Depression

George M. Slavich, Matteo Giletta, Sarah W. Helms, Paul D. Hastings, Karen D. Rudolph, Matthew K. Nock, Mitchell J. Prinstein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Depression rates increase markedly for girls across the adolescent transition, but the social-environmental and biological processes underlying this phenomenon remain unclear. To address this issue, we tested a key hypothesis from Social Signal Transduction Theory of Depression, which posits that individuals who mount stronger inflammatory responses to social stress should exhibit greater increases in depressive symptoms following interpersonal life stress exposure than those who mount weaker inflammatory responses to such stress. Method: Participants were 116 adolescent girls (Mage = 14.71) at risk for psychopathology, defined as having a history of mental health concerns (e.g., psychiatric treatment, significant symptoms) over the past 2 years. At baseline, we characterized their inflammatory reactivity to social stress by quantifying their salivary proinflammatory cytokine responses to a laboratory-based social stressor. Then, 9 months later, we assessed the interpersonal and noninterpersonal stressful life events that they experienced over the prior 9 months using an interview-based measure of life stress. Results: As hypothesized, greater interpersonal life stress exposure was associated with significant increases in depression over time, but only for girls exhibiting stronger salivary tumor necrosis factor-α and interleukin-1β reactivity to social stress. In contrast, noninterpersonal stress exposure was unrelated to changes in depression longitudinally, both alone and when combined with youths' cytokine reactivity scores. Discussion: These results are consistent with Social Signal Transduction Theory of Depression and suggest that heightened inflammatory reactivity to social stress may increase adolescents' risk for depression. Consequently, it may be possible to reduce depression risk by modifying inflammatory responses to social stress.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)179-193
Number of pages15
JournalDepression and Anxiety
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1 2020


  • cytokines
  • development
  • disease
  • inflammation
  • major depressive disorder
  • risk
  • social stress
  • vulnerability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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