Dr. Jill Henning sheds a little light on our immune system and the Coronavirus.
A question from a student and my answer:
Is social distancing and staying at home weakening our immune systems?
Our immune systems are not on the offensive. The point of the immune system is to defend against invasion. We are exposed to microbes daily (even when we are sheltering in place). It is a misconception to think of the immune system like a muscle. We don't expose our immune systems to things to make them stronger, like we lift weights to strengthen skeletal muscle.
When we are exposed to a pathogenic microbe our immune system has two ways to defeat it. The first is called the innate response. This response is encoded in our DNA as a human. It is nearly the same for all of us (with minor differences). This response causes inflammation. It is non-specific and only reacts to each pathogen based on its particular type. For example, all bacteria are treated the same it cannot distinguish Streptococcus pyogenes from Staphylococcus aureus. It doesn't distinguish an adenovirus from the Ebola virus.
Most of the time, this innate response kills the invading microbe. When it doesn't, that is when we see symptoms of a disease. When the innate response can't destroy all of the microbes, then we see the adaptive response.
The adaptive response is specific. This response is different in every individual. We have a complex immune genetic system, that is super cool!, to take gene segments and piece them together to create an entirely new gene. It's called somatic recombination. Our germline DNA is pieced together to give us a new never before seen gene to fight a specific pathogen. That gene is then turned into a protein and made into a specific response to that pathogen.
When the adaptive system kicks in, people who are sick often begin to feel better.
So, the human immune system doesn't need to be strengthened, it already has the ability to fight the infections. We just don't do it unless/until we are exposed.
MORE FROM DR. JILL:
Jill D. Henning, PhD is an Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Pittsburgh Johnstown Campus. She has a broad background in immunology, infectious diseases, and cancer biology. In general, her research examines how infectious disease affect humans and animals—a concept referred to as “One Health.” She has divided her research into two specific categories: viral influences on immune function associated with cancer and zoonotic infectious diseases and their vectors. She completed her Ph.D. in Infectious Diseases Microbiology from the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health in 2008. She was a post-doctoral fellow in biobehavioral medicine for a year and joined the faculty at Pitt-Johnstown in 2009. She teaches Immunology, Microbiology, Ecology of Infectious Diseases, Medical Microbiology, Anatomy and Physiology and Life Sciences.
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