12 Fantastic Facts About the Immune System

iStock
iStock

If it weren't for our immune system, none of us would live very long. Not only does the immune system protect us from external pathogens like viruses, bacteria, and parasites, it also battles cells that have mutated due to illnesses, like cancer, within the body.

Here are 12 fighting facts about the immune system.

1. THE IMMUNE SYSTEM SAVES LIVES.

The immune system is a complex network of tissues and organs that spreads throughout the entire body. In a nutshell, it works like this: A series of "sensors" within the system detects an intruding pathogen, like bacteria or a virus. Then the sensors signal other parts of the system to kill the pathogen and eliminate the infection.

"The immune system is being bombarded by all sorts of microbes all the time," Russell Vance, professor of immunology at University of California, Berkeley and an investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, tells Mental Floss. "Yet, even though we're not aware of it, it's saving our lives every day, and doing a remarkably good job of it."

2. BEFORE SCIENTISTS UNDERSTOOD THE IMMUNE SYSTEM, ILLNESS WAS CHALKED UP TO UNBALANCED HUMORS.

Long before physicians realized how invisible pathogens interacted with the body's system for fighting them off, doctors diagnosed all ills of the body and the mind according to the balance of "four humors": melancholic, phlegmatic, choleric, or sanguine. These criteria, devised by the Greek philosopher Hippocrates, were divided between the four elements, which were linked to bodily fluids (a.k.a. humors): earth (black bile), air (blood), water (phlegm) and fire (yellow bile), which also carried properties of cold, hot, moist, or dry. Through a combination of guesswork and observation, physicians would diagnose patients' humors and prescribe treatment that most likely did little to support the immune system's ability to resist infection.

3. TWO MEN WHO UNRAVELED THE IMMUNE SYSTEM'S FUNCTIONS WERE BITTER RIVALS.

Two scientists who discovered key functions of the immune system, Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch, should have been able to see their work as complementary, but they wound up rivals. Pasteur, a French microbiologist, was famous for his experiments demonstrating the mechanism of vaccines using weakened versions of the microbes. Koch, a German physician, established four essential conditions under which pathogenic bacteria can infect hosts, and used them to identify the Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacterium that causes tuberculosis. Though both helped establish the germ theory of disease—one of the foundations of modern medicine today—Pasteur and Koch's feud may have been aggravated by nationalism, a language barrier, criticisms of each other's work, and possibly a hint of jealousy.

4. SPECIALIZED BLOOD CELLS ARE YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM'S GREATEST WEAPON.

The most powerful weapons in your immune system's arsenal are white blood cells, divided into two main types: lymphocytes, which create antigens for specific pathogens and kill them or escort them out of the body; and phagocytes, which ingest harmful bacteria. White blood cells not only attack foreign pathogens, but recognize these interlopers the next time they meet them and respond more quickly. Many of these immune cells are produced in your bone marrow but also in the spleen, lymph nodes, and thymus, and are stored in some of these tissues and other areas of the body. In the lymph nodes, which are located throughout your body but most noticeably in your armpits, throat, and groin, lymphatic fluid containing white blood cells flows through vein-like tubules to escort foreign invaders out.

5. THE SPLEEN HELPS YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM WORK.

Though you can live without the spleen, an organ that lies between stomach and diaphragm, it's better to hang onto it for your immune function. According to Adriana Medina, a doctor who specializes in hematology and oncology at the Alvin and Lois Lapidus Cancer Institute at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, your spleen is "one big lymph node" that makes new white blood cells, and cleans out old blood cells from the body.

It's also a place where immune cells congregate. "Because the immune cells are spread out through the body," Vance says, "eventually they need to communicate with each other." They do so in both the spleen and lymph nodes.

6. YOU HAVE IMMUNE CELLS IN ALL OF YOUR TISSUES.

While immune cells may congregate more in lymph nodes than elsewhere, "every tissue in your body has immune cells stationed in it or circulating through it, constantly roving for signs of attack," Vance explains. These cells also circulate through the blood. The reason for their widespread presence is that there are thousands of different pathogens that might infect us, from bacteria to viruses to parasites. "To eliminate each of those different kinds of threats requires specialized detectors," he says.

7. HOW FRIENDLY YOU'RE FEELING COULD BE LINKED TO YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM.

From an evolutionary perspective, humans' high sociability may have less to do with our bigger brains, and more to do with our immune system's exposure to a greater number of bacteria and other pathogens.

Researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine have theorized that interferon gamma (IG), the immune cytokine that helps the immune system fight invaders, was linked to social behavior, which is one of the ways we become exposed to pathogens.

In mice, they found IG acted as a kind of brake to the brain's prefrontal cortex, essentially stopping aberrant hyperactivity that can cause negative changes in social behavior. When they blocked the IG molecule, the mice's prefrontal cortexes became hyperactive, resulting in less sociability. When they restored the function, the mice's brains returned to normal, as did their social behavior.

8. YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM MIGHT RECRUIT UNLIKELY ORGANS—LIKE THE APPENDIX—INTO ITS SERVICE.

The appendix gets a bad rap as a vestigial organ that does nothing but occasionally go septic and create a need for immediate surgery. But the appendix may help keep your gut in good shape. According to Gabrielle Belz, professor of molecular immunology at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia, research by Duke University's Randal Bollinger and Bill Parker suggests the appendix houses symbiotic bacteria that are important for overall gut health—especially after infections wipe out the gut's good microbes. Special immune cells known as innate lymphoid cells (ILCs) in the appendix may help to repopulate the gut with healthy bacteria and put the gut back on track to recovery.

9. GUT BACTERIA HAS BEEN SHOWN TO BOOST IMMUNE SYSTEMS IN MICE.

Researchers at the University of Chicago noticed that one group of mice in their lab had a stronger response to a cancer treatment than other mice. They eventually traced the reason to a strain of bacteria—Bifidobacterium—in the mice's guts that boosted the animals' immune system to such a degree they could compare it to anti-cancer drugs called checkpoint inhibitors, which keep the immune system from overreacting.

To test their theory, they transferred fecal matter from the robust mice to the stomachs of less immune-strengthened mice, with positive results: The treated mice mounted stronger immune responses and tumor growth slowed. When they compared the bacterial transfer effects with the effects of a checkpoint inhibitor drug, they found that the bacteria treatment was just as effective. The researchers believe that, with further study, the same effect could be seen in human cancer patients.

10. SCIENTISTS ARE TRYING TO HARNESS THE IMMUNE SYSTEM'S "PAC-MAN" CELLS TO TREAT CANCER.

Aggressive pediatric tumors are difficult to treat due to the toxicity of chemotherapy, but some researchers are hoping to develop effective treatments without the harmful side effects. Stanford researchers designed a study around a recently discovered molecule known as CD47, a protein expressed on the surface of all cells, and how it interacts with macrophages, white blood cells that kill abnormal cells. "Think of the macrophages as the Pac-Man of the immune system," Samuel Cheshier, lead study author and assistant professor of neurosurgery at Stanford Medicine, tells Mental Floss.

CD47 sends the immune system's macrophages a "don't eat me" signal. Cancer cells fool the immune system into not destroying them by secreting high amounts of CD47. When Cheshier and his team blocked the CD47 signals on cancer cells, the macrophages could identify the cancer cells and eat them, without toxic side effects to healthy cells. The treatment successfully shrank all five of the common pediatric tumors, without the nasty side effects of chemotherapy.

11. A NEW THERAPY FOR TYPE 1 DIABETES TRICKS THE IMMUNE SYSTEM.

In those with type 1 diabetes, the body attacks its own pancreatic cells, interrupting its normal ability to produce insulin in response to glucose. In a 2016 paper, researchers at MIT, in collaboration with Boston's Children's Hospital, successfully designed a new material that allows them to encapsulate and transplant healthy pancreatic "islet" cells into diabetic mice without triggering an immune response. Made from seaweed, the substance is benign enough that the body doesn't react to it, and porous enough to allow the islet cells to be placed in the abdomen of mice, where they restore the pancreatic function. Senior author Daniel Anderson, an associate professor at MIT, said in a statement that this approach "has the potential to provide [human] diabetics with a new pancreas that is protected from the immune system, which would allow them to control their blood sugar without taking drugs. That's the dream."

12. IMMUNOTHERAPY IS ON THE CUTTING EDGE OF IMMUNE SYSTEM RESEARCH.

Over the last few years, research in the field of immunology has focused on developing cancer treatments using immunotherapy. This method engineers the patient's own normal cells to attack the cancer cells. Vance says the technique could be used for many more conditions. "I feel like that could be just the tip of the iceberg," he says. "If we can understand better what the cancer and immunotherapy is showing, maybe we can go in there and manipulate the immune responses and get good outcomes for other diseases, too."

13 Facts About Ovaries

iStock.com/magicmine
iStock.com/magicmine

Ovaries are only about the size of large grapes, but they’re one of the most important organs in the female body. Their primary responsibilities include producing eggs and secreting sex hormones that promote fertility. In this way, the future of humanity depends on them. Read on to learn more about these tiny but mighty organs.

1. THEY’RE THE FEMALE GONADS.

Go ahead and laugh, but gonads was a scientific term long before it became slang for a man’s testicles. It actually refers to the reproductive glands of both sexes: ovaries for women, and testes for men. When an embryo is in the early stages of development (around the seventh week), its gonads have the potential to develop into either female or male sex organs through a process called sexual differentiation. By this point, the sex has already been pre-determined by chromosomes (XX or XY), and in the absence of a Y chromosome, the gonads turn into ovaries. One study of adult mice found that ovaries could be turned into testes by deleting a single gene called FOXL2, which is constantly working to suppress the development of male anatomy in mammals. However, it's unknown what effect the modification of this gene would have on humans.

2. THEY’RE CONTROLLED BY THE BRAIN.

The hypothalamus and pituitary gland both play pivotal roles in ensuring the ovaries function as they should. Neither is located anywhere near the ovaries, though. “If you put your finger between your eyes and shoved it backwards into your brain, first you would knock into your pituitary gland, which is a little pea-sized gland,” Randi Epstein, a New York City-based medical doctor and writer, tells Mental Floss. “And if you kept ramming backwards, then you would hit the hypothalamus.” (Of course, she doesn’t recommend actually trying this.)

The hypothalamus is the hormone control center, while the pituitary gland is called the body’s "master gland" because it controls the thyroid and adrenal glands, as well as the ovaries and testicles. Essentially, the hypothalamus tells the pituitary gland to send hormones to the ovaries, and the ovaries respond by secreting their own batch of hormones. A signal is then sent back to the hypothalamus to let it know if the levels of estrogen and progesterone are too high or too low. The cycle then continues, but we don't fully understand what triggers the hypothalamus and kicks off the process in the first place, Epstein says.

3. IT’S HARD TO ACCURATELY PREDICT WHEN OVARIES WILL KICK OFF MENOPAUSE.

Because of the previously mentioned unknowns, there’s no way of telling when puberty or menopause will occur. In the latter case, scientists have been looking at different genetic markers in an attempt to predict when the ovaries will shut down the processes of menstruation and ovulation—otherwise known as menopause—but "nothing is definitive" right now, according to Mary Jane Minkin, an obstetrician-gynecologist in New Haven, Connecticut, who also teaches at the Yale School of Medicine.

However, family history and age offer some clues. The average age for menopause in the U.S. is 51, but if all the women in your family went through menopause in their forties, there’s a good chance you will, too. Women who have had hysterectomies may also go through menopause one or two years earlier than they normally would, even if they have otherwise healthy ovaries. That's because the surgery is believed to reduce the flow of blood to the ovaries, resulting in a lower supply of hormones and therefore earlier ovarian failure.

4. SMOKING CAN ALSO TRIGGER EARLIER MENOPAUSE.

The effects of smoking on internal organs aren’t pretty, and the ovaries are no exception. “Smoking rots ovaries,” Minkin tells Mental Floss. “Basically, if you want to go through menopause earlier, smoke cigarettes.” Doing so can accelerate the onset of menopause by one to two years, and studies have shown that smoking hurts overall ovarian function as well.

5. THEY CHANGE SHAPE OVER TIME.

Ovaries get bigger and morph into the shape of an almond when girls reach adolescence, eventually reaching roughly 1.4 inches in length. Later in life, once menopause has occurred and the ovaries have fulfilled their purpose, they dwindle to under an inch long. “They just sort of poop out and they shrink, so the size gets exponentially smaller,” Minkin says.

6. WHEN A GIRL IS BORN, HER OVARIES HOLD ALL THE EGGS SHE’LL EVER HAVE ...

Female fetuses can carry as many as 7 million oocytes (immature eggs) in their ovarian follicles, and by the time they’re born, that number drops to about 2 million. Here's a mind-boggling fact: If a woman is pregnant with a girl, that means she’s also carrying her potential grandchildren, too.

Many of these eggs die off before a girl reaches reproductive age, though. By the time she starts going through puberty, she has about 300,000 left. About 1000 or so eggs are lost each month after that. When it’s all said and done, only about 400 mature eggs go through ovulation, at which point they’re dropped from the ovaries, through the fallopian tubes, and into the uterus.

7. ... BUT STEM CELL RESEARCH COULD CHANGE THAT.

Research in recent years has suggested that ovarian stem cells could someday be used to grow new egg cells, or to delay or stop menopause in women. Both of these tasks have already been successfully carried out in mice. "If we could gain control of the [human] female biological clock ... you could arguably delay the time of ovary failure, the primary force behind menopause,” researcher Jonathan Tilly told National Geographic in 2012.

For now, women faced with a diminishing supply can have their unfertilized eggs frozen through the process of cryopreservation. It’s meant to improve a woman’s chances of conceiving at a later date, but it isn’t guaranteed to work. “It’s getting better, but it’s hardly perfect,” Minkin says. “You can freeze the eggs, but you don’t know how viable they’re going to be in the long-term.”

8. SCIENTISTS HAVE CREATED 3D-PRINTED OVARIES FOR MICE.

In 2017, scientists used “porous scaffolds from a gelatin ink” to 3D-print synthetic ovaries for mice, The Guardian reported. Those ovaries were then filled with follicles containing immature egg cells, which allowed the mice to give birth to healthy babies. Scientists hope this technique will someday be used to restore fertility to women whose ovaries have been damaged by cancer treatments.

9. OVARIES CHILL OUT ON BIRTH CONTROL PILLS.

Oral contraceptives prevent ovulation by providing all the estrogen and progesterone that the body needs. With the ovaries’ job taken care of, they get to go on “vacation,” Minkin says. When contraceptive pills are used for five or more years, they reduce a woman’s risk of ovarian cancer by 50 percent. That’s because “funky things can happen” during ovulation, at which time the ovaries are at greater risk of an aberration, Minkin says. On the other hand, if the ovaries aren’t releasing eggs, there’s less of an opportunity for mistakes to happen. The ovaries are also less exposed to naturally occurring hormones that may promote the growth of cancer.

10. SOME CHRONIC CONDITIONS AFFECT THE OVARIES.

One of the most common problems affecting the ovaries are cysts. These fluid-filled sacs can form when an egg isn’t properly released from an ovarian follicle, or if the empty follicle sac doesn’t shrink after it bursts open to release an egg. Fortunately, these cysts often go away on their own. They only become a problem if they grow, or multiple cysts form. Strange things can happen, though. In one recent case, surgeons found a cyst containing a miniature skull and brain tissue inside the ovary of a 16-year-old girl. Yes, you read that right. It's called a teratoma —from the Greek word for monster—and it happens when the reproductive cells go rogue and start developing their own way.

Another disorder that can sometimes affect the ovaries is endometriosis. This occurs when tissue that’s similar to the endometrium, which lines the uterus, starts growing somewhere outside the uterus and causes a chronic inflammatory reaction. It can attach to the bladder, bowel, ovaries, or other areas. Symptoms may be minimal, severe, or somewhere in between, and the tissue can be removed through a minor surgery if needed.

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is another fairly common problem, and it’s caused by a hormonal imbalance that in turn creates problems for the ovaries. Ovulation may not go as smoothly, periods can be irregular, and cysts can develop. Since there’s no cure, it’s a lifelong condition, but the symptoms can be managed.

11. CUNNING SALESMEN ONCE SOLD ANTI-AGING OVARY TONICS.

Miracle elixirs made from animal ovaries and testes were a big “money-making fad” in the early 20th century, Epstein writes in her book Aroused: The History of Hormones and How They Control Just About Everything. According to the sales pitch at the time, sex organs give life, so it’s only logical that they would help boost your energy and libido. “We were taking rabbit ovaries, crushing them up, desiccating them, and using them as a fertility or anti-aging treatment,” Epstein tells Mental Floss. One of the first “cures” for menopause and menstruation symptoms wasn’t much better, either. The main active ingredient was alcohol.

12. BIRDS HAVE JUST ONE FUNCTIONAL OVARY.

Unlike their dinosaur ancestors, birds have only their left ovary. Scientists theorize that birds lost an ovary over the course of evolution because it helped reduce their weight, making it easier for them to fly. This explains why dinosaurs laid loads of eggs, but birds lay just a few at a time.

13. SOME ANIMALS CAN SWITCH SEXES BY CHANGING THEIR OVARIES.

All clownfish are born male, but they’re able to change sex at will. This is because they have both mature testes and immature ovaries, the latter of which can develop if the alpha female in a school of fish dies. (As Business Insider points out, a scientifically accurate Finding Nemo would have been significantly more disturbing.)

Parrotfish can change sex as well—mostly from female to male. During this transition, the ovaries dissolve and testes are grown. “In general, for species where big males can control access to females (think harem), it pays to be female when small (you get to reproduce with the dominant male) and then turn into a male when you are big enough to duke it out with a competing male to win access to a group of females,” writes Marah Hardt, author of Sex in the Sea.

10 Smart Facts About Your Gut

Colorized scanning electron micrograph of E. coli, a common gut bacteria
Colorized scanning electron micrograph of E. coli, a common gut bacteria
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Gut feelings get all the press, but your gut may be more of a thinker than you know. Some scientists now consider it a second brain. While it won’t necessarily help you study for an exam or get a promotion, your gut can influence the chemistry of your mood, emotions, immune system, and long-term health. Research even suggests the gut can “learn” new tricks through conditioning. These powerful connections are part an emerging field of science called neurogastroenterology designed to study the gut-brain link. Here are 10 facts you may not know about your gut.

1. THE GUT DOESN'T NEED THE BRAIN'S INPUT. 

You might think of your gut as a rebel against authority. It doesn’t wait for your brain’s impulses to do the important work of digestion, because it doesn’t need to—it acts as its own “brain.” No other organ, not even the all-powerful heart, can pull that off.

2. THERE ARE MORE THAN 100 MILLION BRAIN CELLS IN YOUR GUT.

Your gut’s power to think for itself is no surprise; there are millions of neurons in its lengthy coils (9 meters of intestines, from esophagus to anus). That’s more neurons than are found in the spinal cord or peripheral nervous system.

3. YOUR GUT HAS ITS OWN NERVOUS SYSTEM.

The enteric nervous system—the controlling mechanism of digestion and elimination—is the overlord of your gut, and functions all on its own. Some scientists see it as part of the central nervous system, while others consider it its own entity. It likely evolved to give the gut the go-ahead when the “got to go” impulse strikes, without requiring the brain’s sign-off, particularly when you consider the helplessness of an infant with its brand-new brain.

4. THERE'S AN INFORMATION HIGHWAY FROM YOUR GUT TO YOUR BRAIN.

There’s one big visceral nerve embedded in your gut—the vagus nerve. Research has revealed that up to 90 percent of its fibers carry information from the gut to the brain, rather than the other way around. In other words, the brain interprets gut signals as emotions. So you really should trust your gut.

5. MOST OF YOUR SEROTONIN IS IN YOUR GUT.

Some 95 percent of your body’s serotonin, that marvelous mood molecule that antidepressant drugs like Prozac keep in your body, can be found in the gut. So, it’s no wonder that diet, medications, and antibiotics can wreak havoc on one’s mood.

6. A HEALTHY GUT MAY PROTECT YOUR BONES.

In a study of the serotonin-gut relationship, scientists discovered an unexpected link between the gut and the bones. Inhibiting the gut’s release of serotonin counteracted the bone-density reduction of osteoporosis in mice. This research is going into studies on new osteoporosis-fighting drugs.

7. RESEARCH SHOWS LINKS BETWEEN AUTISM AND HAVING FEWER STRAINS OF GUT BACTERIA. 

In as many as nine out of 10 cases, autistic people have common gut imbalances such as leaky gut syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, and fewer strains of “good” bacteria. Research on mice is looking at possible treatments of some of the behavioral disorders of autism by balancing microbes in the guts, though many warn that such treatments can’t produce a “cure” for autism.

8. FOOD REALLY DOES AFFECT YOUR MOOD. 

Different foods, when introduced to the gut via feeding tubes, have been shown to change a person's moods without the person’s awareness of what they were "eating." Fat, for instance, increased feelings of happiness and pleasure (no surprise there) because appeared to trigger the release of dopamine—the brain’s natural opiate. Carbohydrate consumption stimulated the release of serotonin, the “feel good” neurotransmitter.

9. YOUR GUT IS YOUR BEST FRIEND IN COLD AND FLU SEASON.

Not only does your gut hold brain cells, it also houses the bulk of your immune cells—70 percent—in the form of gut associated lymphoid tissue, or GALT, which plays a huge part in killing and expelling pathogens. GALT and your gut microbiome—the trillions of bacteria that live, like an immense microbial universe, in your gut—work hard to help you get over what ails you. That’s all the more reason to be careful with the use of antibiotics, which wipe out the good bacteria along with the bad.

10. YOUR GUT CAN BECOME ADDICTED TO OPIATES.

Inside your gut are opiate receptors, which are also found in the brain. The gut is just as susceptible to addiction as the brain and may contribute to the intense difficulty some addicts have trying to kick the habit.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER