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Understanding the Immune System
Adapted by Thyroid Guide, Mary J. Shomon

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The Anatomy of the Immune System

The organs of the immune system are stationed throughout the body. They are generally referred to as lymphoid organs because they are concerned with the growth, development, and deployment of lymphocytes, the white cells that are the key operatives of the immune system. Lymphoid organs include the bone marrow and the thymus, as well as lymph nodes, spleen, tonsils and adenoids, the appendix, and clumps of lymphoid tissue in the small intestine known as Peyer's patches. The blood and lymphatic vessels that carry lymphocytes to and from the other structures can also be considered lymphoid organs.

Cells destined to become immune cells, like all other blood cells, are produced in the bone marrow, the soft tissue in the hollow shafts of long bones. The descendants of some so-called stem cells become lymphocytes, while others develop into a second major group of immune cells typified by the large, cell-and particle-devouring white cells known as phagocytes.

The two major classes of lymphocytes are B cells and T cells. B cells complete their maturation in the bone marrow. T cells, on the other hand, migrate to the thymus, a multilobed organ that lies high behind the breastbone. There they multiply and mature into cells capable of producing immune response-that is, they become immunocompetent. In a process referred to as T cell "education," T cells in the thymus learn to distinguish self cells from nonself cells; T cells that would react against self antigens are eliminated.

anatomy of the immune system

Upon exiting the bone marrow and thymus, some lymphocytes congregate in immune organs or lymph nodes. Others-both B and T cells-travel widely and continuously throughout the body. They use the blood circulation as well as a bodywide network of lymphatic vessels similar to blood vessels.

Laced along the lymphatic routes-with clusters in the neck, armpits, abdomen, and groin-are small, bean-shaped lymph nodes. Each lymph node contains specialized compartments that house platoons of B lymphocytes, T lymphocytes, and other cells capable of enmeshing antigen and presenting it to T cells. Thus, the lymph node brings together the several components needed to spark an immune response.

The spleen, too, provides a meeting ground for immune defenses. A fist-sized organ at the upper left of the abdomen, the spleen contains two main types of tissue: the red pulp that disposes of worn-out blood cells and the white pulp that contains lymphoid tissue. Like the lymph nodes, the spleen's lymphoid tissue is subdivided into compartments that specialize in different kinds of immune cells. Microorganisms carried by the blood into the red pulp become trapped by the immune cells known as macrophages. (Although people can live without a spleen, persons whose spleens have been damaged by trauma or by disease such as sickle cell anemia, are highly susceptible to infection; surgical removal of the spleen is especially dangerous for young children and the immunosuppressed.)

Nonencapsulated clusters of lymphoid tissue are found in many parts of the body. They are common around the mucous membranes lining the respiratory and digestive tracts-areas that serve as gateways to the body. They include the tonsils and adenoids, the appendix, and Peyer's patches.

The lymphatic vessels carry lymph, a clear fluid that bathes the body's tissues. Lymph, along with the many cells and particles it carries-notably lymphocytes, macrophages, and foreign antigens, drains out of tissues and seeps across the thin walls of tiny lymphatic vessels. The vessels transport the mix to lymph nodes, where antigens can be filtered out and presented to immune cells.

Additional lymphocytes reach the lymph nodes (and other immune tissues) through the bloodstream. Each node is supplied by an artery and a vein; lymphocytes enter the node by traversing the walls of the very small specialized veins.

lymph node

All lymphocytes exit lymph nodes in lymph via outgoing lymphatic vessels. Much as small creeks and streams empty into larger rivers, the lymphatics feed into larger and larger channels. At the base of the neck, large lymphatic vessels merge into the thoracic duct, which empties its contents into the bloodstream.

Once in the bloodstream, the lymphocytes and other assorted immune cells are transported to tissues throughout the body. They patrol everywhere for foreign antigens, then gradually drift back into the lymphatic vessels, to begin the cycle all over again.

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Updated 2002: This information has been made available from the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
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