The Link Between the Immune System and the Brain

in Immune-system

Endorphins are the link between the immune system and the brain. They are neurotransmitters such as serotonin, acetylcholine, and norepinephrine, compounds that act like messengers shuttling electrical impulses between the nerve cells in the brain, triggering a highly complex response that begins in the hypothalamus and ends in the cells of the immune system. Recent discov eries have found that these neurotransmitters also play a role in controlling the autonomic nervous system, the part that operates automatically to regulate all the involuntary activity of the body. This connection between the autonomic nervous system and the immune system has caused the scientific community to completely rethink its position on how the body protects itself. The new research also shows that these messages can be communicated in both directions. Some of the neurotransmitters, such as the "feel good" opiate betaendorphin, originate in the immune system itself. In fact, these mood-altering trans mitters have recently been found in all parts of the body, not just the brain! The idea of a feedback loop, that the central nervous system can influence the immune system, which can then influence the central nervous system, is creating much interest and excitement among researchers, and it further illustrates the biochemical link ages between body and mind.

 

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Since the pioneering work of Dr. Hans Selye in the 1950s, hundreds of studies have been conducted that confirm his original research on the effects of emotional stress on the immune system, that neurotransmitters pro duced in the brain travel through the blood to alter the activity of the immune system on the cellular level. Not all stress is damaging. In fact, mild forms of stress can actu ally enhance the immune system, but unhealthy levels, particularly acute stress, can weaken it. Fear and rage, or inappropriate triggering of the fight-or-flight syndrome (which provided our ancestors with the adrenaline needed to escape from wild beasts but is of little help when confronting an angry spouse or boss), are the kinds of stress that do people harm. Unhealthy stress decreases the body's protein and fat synthesis and glucose use, diminishing the amount of insulin it produces. It also creates a biochemical domino effect that begins in the brain with an increase in the production of the hormone corticosterone, which in turn decreases the number of

T-cells, B-cells, and natural killer cells, which patrol the immune system, destroying newly formed cancer cells and other invaders.

 

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A major study conducted at New York's Mt. Sinai Hospital documented the impairment of the immune system in men whose wives had recently died. Their bereavement impaired the ability of their lymphocytes to destroy intruders. A study done there in 1984 on people hospitalized for depression documented a decline in the number of lymphocytes in their bloodstream.

 



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The Link Between the Immune System and the Brain

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This article was published on 2010/11/10