Immunological memory and late onset autoimmunity

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66 Scopus citations


This review will address a paradox that has long fascinated scientists studying the effects of aging on the immune system. Although it has been clearly documented that B and T lymphocytes lose the ability to respond to antigenic or mitogenic stimulation with age, it has nonetheless been noted that the frequency of autoreactive antibodies is higher in older individuals. Given that the majority of the age-associated defects in immune regulation target the naïve T and B lymphocyte subsets, it has been presumed that this increase in antibodies specific for self antigens was due to changes in the B cell repertoire and/or to differences in the mechanisms responsible for generating immune tolerance in primary responses. However, in this review, we will address an alternative possibility that memory immune responses, first generated when the individual was young, may play a critical role in the appearance of serum autoantibodies by reactivation later in life (recall memory). It has recently been shown, in several different systems, that memory immunity can be maintained over the lifetime of the animal. Thus, memory B cells which are self-reactive may be harbored within an organism as it ages and the potential exists that they become re-activated at a later time, resulting in a vigorous autoreactive recall response. This may occur preferentially in older individuals due to several factors, including deficiencies in immune tolerance with age, progressive age-associated loss of tissue integrity yielding neo-self antigens, and possible re-exposure to an infectious agent which induces an autoimmune memory response through molecular mimicry. Thus, we propose that some of the autoantibodies seen in elderly patients and in older animals may have been produced by memory lymphocytes originally generated against antigens encountered during one's youth, but maintained in a tolerant (non reactive) state until a subsequent triggering event occurs. Possible implications of this model will be discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)975-985
Number of pages11
JournalMechanisms of Ageing and Development
Issue number8
StatePublished - Apr 30 2002


  • Autoimmunity
  • Immune tolerance
  • Memory immunity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Aging
  • Developmental Biology


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