Sex-specific associations between plasma interleukin-6 and depression in persons with and without HIV

Kalen J. Petersen, Xiaoying Yu, Mary Clare Masters, Judith D. Lobo, Tina Lu, Scott Letendre, Ronald J. Ellis, J. Allen McCutchan, Erin Sundermann

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Background: Persons with HIV (PWH) have both more frequent depression and higher levels of plasma inflammatory biomarkers compared to persons without HIV (PWoH). Inflammation and depressive symptoms are linked, including in PWH; however, it is unclear whether these associations differ by HIV serostatus and biological sex. Methods: Six plasma inflammatory biomarkers were assessed using samples from PWH and PWoH who participated in six NIH-funded studies through the UCSD HIV Neurobehavioral Research Program (HNRP) from 2011 to 2019. Factor analysis was performed to identify intercorrelated groups of biomarkers. Factors and their components were then examined for relationships with Beck Depression Inventory-II (BDI-II) and modifying effects of sex or HIV serostatus using multivariable linear regression, adjusting for demographics, substance use diagnoses, and relevant co-morbidities. Results: Participants included 150 PWH (age = 48.3 ± 13.1 yr; 88% biologically male) and 138 PWoH (age = 46.3 ± 15.9; 56% male). Two inflammatory factors were identified: Factor 1 loaded on interleukin-6 (IL-6), C-reactive protein (CRP), and D-dimer; Factor 2 loaded on interleukin-8, chemokine C–C ligand 2 (CCL2), and chemokine C-X-C ligand 10 (CXCL10). Sex modified the effect of Factor 1 on BDI-II, with a more positive association for men than women (p = 0.04). No significant association between Factor 2 and BDI-II was found. Of the biomarkers in Factor 1, only IL-6 was significantly associated with BDI-II and was modified by sex (p = 0.003). In sex-stratified analysis, a positive association was found for men (β = 5.42; 95% confidence interval = [1.32, 9.52]) but not women (β = −3.88; 95% C.I. = [-11.02, 3.26]). No HIV-related interactions were detected. Interpretation: We identified a depression-associated inflammatory factor present in both PWH and PWoH, consistent with prior studies of PWH only. The association was driven by a correlation between IL-6 and depression exclusively in men, suggesting that the depression-inflammation link differs by sex. Future studies of depression etiology or treatment, including those on persons with HIV, should consider the impact of biological sex in both design and analysis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number100644
JournalBrain, Behavior, and Immunity - Health
StatePublished - Jul 2023


  • Depression
  • HIV infection
  • Inflammation
  • Sex differences

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Nephrology


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