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Scand J Immunol. 1999 Oct;50(4):348-54.

Is there a maternally induced immunological imprinting phase à la Konrad Lorenz?

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Biochemical Institute of the Medical Faculty of the Christian-Albrechts-University, Kiel, Germany.


In mammals, IgG antibodies are transferred from mothers to the offspring. Since these maternal antibodies result mainly from thymus-dependent immune responses which have undergone immune maturation through somatic hypermutations, they represent the highest quality of the collective maternal immunological experience. Maternal antibodies not only confer passive immunity as long as the newborn's immune system has not fully developed, but also exert an active stimulation as indicated by their regulatory influence on isotype expression, long-term idiotypic alterations, determination of the adult B and T cell repertoire, induction of antigen reactive IgM as well as an affinity enhancement of a proportion of early primary antibodies. The fact that several of these features can only be induced during limited sensitive periods shortly after birth is reminiscent of the behavioural imprinting as defined by Konrad Lorenz. We therefore propose that during early ontogeny there is an immunological imprinting phase with characteristics analogous to behavioural imprinting: (i) the internal imprinting effect is induced by external signals, (ii) in contrast to normal learning, immunological imprinting is also only possible during certain development phases and (iii) it is characterised by an (almost) irreversible result. Hence, if particular immunological experiences are only possible during such sensitive phases, maternal immunoglobulins and consequently the mother's immunological experience is of prime importance for the start of the ontogenetic development of the immune system.

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