Salivary free light chains as a new biomarker to measure psychological stress: the impact of a university exam period on salivary immunoglobulins, cortisol, DHEA and symptoms of infection: the impact of a university exam period on salivary immunoglobulins, cortisol, DHEA and symptoms of infection

Lylah Irshad, Sian Faustini, Lili Evans, Mark T. Drayson, John P. Campbell, Jennifer L.J. Heaney

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Introduction: Measurement of immunoglobulin free light chains (FLCs) in saliva can serve as a non-invasive biomarker in health and behavioural research. FLCs have been explored in relation to physiological stress but FLC responses to psychological stress and their relationship with infections remain unknown. This study aimed to investigate the impact of exam period stress on salivary FLCs alongside other established biomarkers of stress and whether FLCs relate to symptoms of infection. Methods: 58 healthy adults studying at university completed saliva samples and questionnaires in a period without exams (baseline), and again prior to the start of an exam period. Saliva samples were assessed for FLCs, IgA, cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). Measures of life events stress, perceived stress, anxiety and depression were completed. Students also reported incidence and severity of symptoms of infection and rated general well-being at baseline, prior to, during and after the exam period. Exercise, sleep and alcohol consumption were also assessed at both timepoints. Results: FLCs secretion rates were significantly lower at the exam period compared to baseline (p <.01), with reductions of 26% and 25% for κ FLC and λ FLC, respectively. In agreement, salivary IgA secretion rate was lower at exams (non-significant trend, p =.07). Cortisol concentration significantly increased at exams (p <.05) while DHEA did not change, leading to an increase in the cortisol:DHEA ratio (p =.06). Depression (p <.05) and anxiety increased from baseline to exams and life stress reported in the build up to the exam period was higher compared with baseline (p <.001). Well-being significantly decreased from baseline to exams (p <.01). The proportion of participants reporting infection symptoms (70%) was unchanged between baseline and prior to exams. No significant relationships were found between FLCs or other saliva parameters and infection symptoms, well-being or stress/psychological measures. Changes in saliva parameters between timepoints were independent of health behaviours. Conclusions: Salivary FLCs are responsive to life events stress and corroborate with IgA. This preliminary study highlights the potential utility of FLCs as a new salivary biomarker in stress research.

Original languageEnglish
Article number104912
Early online date15 Oct 2020
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2020


  • cortisol
  • DHEA
  • free light chain
  • IgA
  • infection
  • saliva
  • stress

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism
  • Endocrinology
  • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry

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