Getting the dirt on immunity: Study shows early exposure to germs is a good thing

March 22, 2012

(Medical Xpress) -- Previous human studies have suggested that early life exposure to microbes (i.e., germs) is an important determinant of adulthood sensitivity to allergic and autoimmune diseases such as hay fever, asthma and inflammatory bowel disease.

This concept of exposing people to germs at an early age (i.e., childhood) to build immunity is known as the hygiene hypothesis.

Medical professionals have suggested that the hygiene hypothesis explains the global increase of allergic and in urban settings. It has also been suggested that the hypothesis explains the changes that have occurred in society and , such as giving antibiotics early in life.

However, neither biologic support nor a mechanistic basis for the hypothesis has been directly demonstrated. Until now.

Researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH) have conducted a study that provides evidence supporting the hygiene hypothesis, as well as a potential mechanism by which it might occur.

The study will be published online in the journal Science on the website on March 22, 2012.

The researchers studied the immune system of mice lacking bacteria or any other microbes ("germ-free mice") and compared them to mice living in a normal environment with microbes.

They found that germ-free mice had exaggerated inflammation of the lungs and colon resembling asthma and colitis, respectively. This was caused by the hyperactivity of a unique class of T cells () that had been previously linked to these disorders in both mice and humans.

Most importantly, the researchers discovered that exposing the germ-free mice to microbes during their first weeks of life, but not when exposed later in adult life, led to a normalized immune system and prevention of diseases.

Moreover, the protection provided by early-life exposure to microbes was long-lasting, as predicted by the .

"These studies show the critical importance of proper immune conditioning by microbes during the earliest periods of life," said Richard Blumberg, MD, chief for the BWH Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Endoscopy, and co-senior study author, in collaboration with Dennis Kasper, MD, director of BWH's Channing Laboratory and co-senior study author. "Also now knowing a potential mechanism will allow scientists to potentially identify the microbial factors important in determining protection from allergic and autoimmune diseases later in life."

In light of the findings, the researchers caution that further research is still needed in humans.

Explore further: Is cleanliness wiping out our immune system?

More information: www.sciencemag.org/content/early/2012/03/21/science.1219328

Related Stories

Is cleanliness wiping out our immune system?

June 2, 2011

(Medical Xpress) -- Too much cleanliness has been linked to the alarming rise in auto-immune and allergic diseases in the Western world, says Professor Barbara Fazekas de St Groth from the Centenary Institute. But the answer ...

Recommended for you

Team finds early inflammatory response paralyzes T cells

August 18, 2015

In a discovery that is likely to rewrite immunology text books, researchers at UC Davis have found that early exposure to inflammatory cytokines, such as interleukin 2, can "paralyze" CD4 T cells, immune components that help ...

SIV shrugs off antibodies in vaccinated monkeys

August 11, 2015

New research on monkeys vaccinated against HIV's relative SIV calls into question an idea that has driven AIDS vaccine work for years. The assumption: a protective vaccine only needs to stimulate moderate levels of antibodies ...

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Telekinetic
not rated yet Mar 22, 2012
Granny always said- "Yer gonna eat a peck o' dirt afore ya die!"
alfie_null
not rated yet Mar 24, 2012
Kids are good at exposing themselves no matter what steps you've taken to present a sterile environment. Everything ends up in the mouth. My question regarding the mice: what does "exposed" mean? To what degree does being exposed mean getting sick? (vs. a little inflammation, no symptoms, etc.)

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.