Getting the Dirt on Immunity: Researchers Show That Early Exposure to Germs is a Good Thing
BOSTON, MA—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 autoimmune diseases in urban settings. It has also been suggested that the hypothesis explains the changes that have occurred in society and environmental exposures, 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 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 (immune 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 hygiene hypothesis.
In light of the findings, the researchers caution that further research is still needed in humans.
This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health, Crohns Colitis Foundation of America, Harvard Digestive Diseases Center, Medizinausschuss Schleswig-Holstein, and Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft.