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Proc Nutr Soc. 2000 May;59(2):177-85.

Early nutrition and the development of immune function in the neonate.

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Department of Intestinal Cell Biology and Immunology, Rowett Research Institute, Bucksburn, Aberdeen, UK.


The present review will concentrate on the development of the gut-associated lymphoid tissue and the role of early nutrition in promoting immune function. The intestine is the largest immune organ in the body, and as such is the location for the majority of lymphocytes and other immune effector cells. The intestine is exposed to vast quantities of dietary and microbial antigens, and is the most common portal of entry for pathogens, some of which are potentially lethal. The development of normal immune function of the intestine is therefore vital for survival, and is dependent on appropriate antigen exposure and processing, and also an intact intestinal barrier. In early life innate mechanisms of defence are probably more important than active or adaptive mechanisms in responding to an infectious challenge, since the healthy neonate is immunologically naïve (has not seen antigen) and has not acquired immunological memory. During this period maternal colostrum and milk can significantly augment resistance to enteric infections. The mechanisms of enhancing disease resistance are thought to be passive, involving a direct supply of anti-microbial factors, and active, by promoting the development of specific immune function. A tolerance response to dietary and non-invasive antigens is generally induced in the gut. However, it must also be able to mount an adequate immune response to ensure clearance of foreign antigens. It is now recognized that regulation of tolerance and active immune responses is critical to health, and failure to regulate these responses can lead to recurrent infections, inflammatory diseases and allergies. The education of the immune system in early life is thought to be critical in minimizing the occurrence of these immune-based disorders. During this phase of development maternal milk provides signals to the immune system that generate appropriate response and memory. One factor that has been proposed to contribute to the increase in the incidence of immune-based disorders, e.g. atopic diseases in Western countries, is thought to be the increased prevalence of formula-feeding.

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