Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Immune System Defined - Part 1 of 5 - Overview

At the heart of food allergies is an underlying problem in the immune system.  It quickly became clear that JR’s food-induced reactions left him at the mercy of an immune system that is simply “out of whack” or not properly balanced.  After all, why would the immune system mount such a strong attack against a harmless, nutritious food like a pistachio?  It’s not bubonic plague or anything!

Ah… the immune system. If you happened to be in the same room as me, you would note a very long, drawn-out sigh. For a neuroscientist, there is perhaps no other bodily system that strikes more fear than the immune system. One exception may be the neuroscientists specializing in the autoimmune disorder, multiple sclerosis, but then again, I haven’t asked one! For years now, I have had the utmost admiration for scientists seeking to understand both the nervous and immune systems because they are each equally and insanely complex. My poor brain just hurt at the thought of tackling journal articles such as - Decreased CD8+ T cell response to Epstein-Barr virus infected B cells in multiple sclerosis is not due to decreased HLA class I expression on B cells or monocytes. CD8+ T cell? B cell? HLA class I?! And there is a virus, too?! What is all this stuff? No thank you, sirs and madams (no offense to the authors of this work; I’m sure it is great stuff, and I have the utmost respect)! But I digress…

For this momma and neuroscientist of a child with at least 20 different food allergies, some of them life-threatening (please see Our Story), I wanted answers, and if I wanted answers, it could only mean one thing – ready or not immune system, here I come!

But what exactly is the immune system and what does it do?  Most of us have an intuitive sense that it is our protector from all things disease-causing.  However, critical for any scientific discussion, and hopefully there will be many on this blog, are precise definitions.  So while an intuitive sense can take you pretty far (even in science!), precision is ultimately essential.

I hope this will serve as a reference if some of my future posts get a bit technical.  I promise to keep the jargon to a minimum, and if I do get too technical, feel free to leave scathing comments, and I'll try my darndest to clarify and improve any future posts.  I’m learning right along with you!  I welcome all feedback, especially if it helps improve my ability to communicate some pretty complicated stuff.

Key questions I seek to answer over the next four posts:
  1. What does the body-wide immune system look like and what are the major organs?
  2. Who are the key players (cells of the immune system)?
  3. What are the known functions of the immune system? 
  4. What is immune system balance (homeostasis, !EEK - jargon alert!) and what happens when the system is not balanced (Hint, hint... food allergy)?
Stick with me over the next four posts and we’re well on our way to a better understanding of the immune system!

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