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  1. Dr. Bailey at work in his Postle Hall laboratory

Faculty Researcher Investigates Stress, the Immune Response, and Periodontal Disease

March, 2009

Dr. Michael Bailey is an assistant professor in the College of Dentistry’s Division of Oral Biology, and he is a member of the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research, as well as being an adjunct assistant professor in the College of Medicine’s Department of Molecular Virology, Immunology, and Medical Genetics.

With a master’s degree in biology, a Ph.D. in psychology, and postdoctoral training in neuroendocrine immunology, Dr. Bailey’s career has focused on the intricate workings of the mind and the body as they relate to stress and how it affects the immune system.

As a faculty researcher in dentistry, Dr. Bailey, with the help of assistant professor of periodontology Binnaz Leblebicioglu, received funding in 2006 from a Seed Grant Program sponsored by the College’s Office of Research, which provided the support needed to initiate a project that investigates the role of stress in periodontal (gum) disease. Bailey’s and Leblebicioglu’s research focus was a type of bacteria called Porphyromonas gingivalis, which is commonly found in the gums of patients who are treated for periodontal disease.

Knowing that one factor in the development of periodontal disease is an overreactive immune response to bacteria, and that stress is also a risk indicator in periodontal disease, Bailey’s main research objective was to investigate the hypothesis that stress increases the reactivity of the immune system to oral bacteria.

Using mice as the subjects for his study, Bailey and his colleagues discovered that when an aggressive new mouse was introduced to a group of five resident mice, the social stress that resulted from this experience — which occurred in a daily two-hour segment for six consecutive days — caused the immune systems of the resident mice to rev up the activity of monocytes and macrophages or disease-fighting white blood cells when they were subsequently exposed to Porphyromonas gingivalis.

This experiment confirmed the fact that limited stress has a stimulating effect on the immune system, and it also showed Bailey and his colleagues that their work was on the right track for what may ultimately lead to new discoveries about the role of short-term stress as it relates to the body’s ability to fight infections.

Bailey has also received a National Institutes of Health grant to conduct similar research on the immune response as it relates to Escherichia coli bacterial infections, with the goal of understanding how short-term stress can increase the immune response and improve the body’s ability to kill this type of bacteria.

Summarizing the importance of these research projects, Bailey said, “We know that long-term or chronic stress can suppress the immune response and can be harmful to the human body, but these studies with social stress in mice have shown us that a limited amount of stress can cause the immune response to increase. Under the right circumstances, this can benefit the body, but if the immune response becomes too strong, this too can be harmful.”

Bailey added, “If we can find out how stress changes the immune response, we may be able to develop new ways of targeting the immune system to speed up healing and to increase the body’s ability to fight infections—and that, of course, may eventually lead us to new treatments for periodontal diseases, and for treating illnesses in general.”

Click here to find out more about Dr. Bailey’s research publications.

Click here to read the (2008) IADR Conference abstract titled, “Social stress increases cytokine production by Porphyromonas gingivalis LPS-stimulated macrophages.”