The tryptophan-kynurenine pathway is of major interest in psychiatry and is altered in patients with depression, schizophrenia and panic disorder. Stress and immune alterations can impact this system, through cortisol- and cytokine-induced activation. In addition, there is emerging evidence that the kynurenine pathway is associated with suicidality. There have been no studies to date exploring the immune-kynurenine system in social anxiety disorder (SAD), and indeed very limited human studies on the kynurenine pathway in any clinical anxiety disorder.
We investigated plasma levels of several kynurenine pathway markers, including kynurenine (KYN), tryptophan (TRYP) and kynurenic acid (KYNA), along with the KYN/TRYP and KYNA/KYN ratios, in a cohort of 32 patients with SAD and 36 healthy controls. We also investigated a broad array of both basal and lipopolysaccharide (LPS)-stimulated blood cytokine levels including IFN-γ, interleukin (IL)-10, IL-1β, IL-2, IL-4, IL-6, IL-8 and tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-α.
SAD patients had elevated plasma KYNA levels and an increased KYNA/KYN ratio compared to healthy controls. No differences in KYN, TRYP or the KYN/TRYP ratio were seen between the two groups. SAD patients with a history of past suicide attempt showed elevated plasma KYN levels and a higher KYN/TRYP ratio compared to patients without a history of suicide attempt. No differences were seen in basal or LPS-stimulated pro-inflammatory cytokine levels between the patients and controls. However, unstimulated IL-10, an anti-inflammatory cytokine, was significantly lower in the SAD group. A significant sex influence was evident with SAD males having lower levels of IL-10 compared to healthy males but no difference seen between SAD females and healthy females.
The peripheral kynurenine pathway is altered in SAD and preferentially directed towards KYNA synthesis. Additionally, kynurenine pathway activation, as evidenced by elevated KYN and KYN/TRYP ratio, is evident in SAD patients with a history of past suicide attempt. While no differences in pro-inflammatory cytokines is apparent in SAD patients, lower anti-inflammatory IL-10 levels are seen in SAD males. Further investigation of the role of the immune-kynurenine pathway in SAD and other clinical anxiety disorders is warranted.

Copyright © 2021. Published by Elsevier Inc.