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Understanding the Immune System

Adapted by Mary Shomon

The immune system is a complex network of specialized cells and organs that has evolved to defend the body against attacks by "foreign" invaders. When functioning properly it fights off infections by agents such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. When it malfunctions, however, it can unleash a torrent of diseases, from allergy to cancer to AIDS.

The immune system evolved because we live in a sea of microbes. Like man, these organisms are programmed to perpetuate themselves. The human body provides an ideal habitat for many of them and they try to break in; because the presence of these organisms is often harmful, the body's immune system will attempt to bar their entry or, failing that, to seek out and destroy them.

The immune system, which equals in complexity the intricacies of the brain and nervous system, displays several remarkable characteristics. It can distinguish between "self" and "nonself." It is able to remember previous experiences and react accordingly; thus, once you have had chicken pox, your immune system will prevent you from getting it again. The immune system displays both enormous diversity and extraordinary specificity; not only is it able to recognize many millions of distinctive nonself molecules, it can produce molecules and cells to match up with and counteract each one of them. And it has at its command a sophisticated array of weapons.

The success of this system in defending the body relies on an incredibly elaborate and dynamic regulatory-communications network. Millions and millions of cells, organized into sets and subsets, pass information back and forth like clouds of bees swarming around a hive. The result is a sensitive system of checks and balances that produces an immune response that is prompt, appropriate, effective, and self-limiting.

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All information is intended for your general knowledge only and is not a substitute for medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should seek prompt medical care for any specific health issues and consult your physician or health practitioner before starting a new treatment program. Please see our full disclaimer.