How Psychoneuroimmunology Sheds Light on Stress and Overall Health

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Psychoneuroimmunology, also known as PNI, is an important, relatively new field that lends solid research to our understanding of the mind-body connection.

What Is Psychoneuroimmunology?

In a nutshell, PNI studies the connection between psychological processes and the nervous and immune systems of the body. A more detailed description of PNI was given in an interview with Dr. Robert Ader, a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, and one of the pioneers of this rapidly growing branch of research. It reads as follows:

“Psychoneuroimmunology refers, most simply, to the study of the interactions among behavioral, neural and endocrine (or neuroendocrine), and immunologic processes of adaptation. Its central premise is that homeostasis is an integrated process involving interactions among behavior and the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems.”


The field grew from the work of Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov and his classical conditioning model. Pavlov was able to condition dogs to salivate when they heard the ring of a bell by ringing a bell when they were given food. Eventually, they came to automatically associate the sound of the bell with the act of eating, so that when the food was no longer given, the sound of the bell would automatically cause them to salivate.

With PNI, Russian researchers conducted a series of experiments that showed that the body’s other systems may be altered by conditioning as well. Although their research does not live up to today’s rigorous standards, they were able to cause immunologic reactions in animals in much the same way that Pavlov created salivation in his dogs.

American researchers like Ader took the research further in the United States, and we now know for certain that immune responses can be enhanced or suppressed with a wide variety of conditioned cues. We also have a deeper understanding of the placebo effect—some researchers are beginning to believe that it might be a conditioned response as well.

Psychoneuroimmunology Applications

Psychoneuroimmunology research sheds a great deal of light on many aspects of wellness and provides important research on stress. PNI studies have found many correlations between life events and health effects.

As PNI has gained greater acceptance in the scientific community, the finding that emotional states can affect immunity has been an important one, and research in this area helps us to gain a clearer understanding of stress and its effects on health. We are gaining a clearer understanding of the links between lifestyle and personality factors and immunity as research continues.

Stress and Health Research includes studies that exemplify what we have learned so far through the field of PNI and supply us with important information on the link between stress and health.

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  • Freeman, L. W. (2009). Mosby’s complementary and alternative medicine. (3 ed.). St. Louis, MO: Mosby.

By Elizabeth Scott, PhD
Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing.