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J Intern Med. 2005 Feb;257(2):126-38.

The immune system as the sixth sense.

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Department of Physiology and Biophysics, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Birmingham, AL, USA.


One of the truly remarkable discoveries in modern biology is the finding that the nervous system and immune system use a common chemical language for intra- and inter-system communication. This review will discuss some of the pivotal results that deciphered this chemical language. Specifically the nervous and immune systems produce a common set of peptide and nonpeptide neurotransmitters and cytokines that act on a common repertoire of receptors in the two systems. The paper will also review more recent studies that have delineated hardwired and humoral pathways for such bidirectional communication. This is discussed in the context of the idea that the sharing of ligands and receptors allows the immune system to serve as the sixth sense that notifies the nervous system of the presence of entities, such as viruses and bacteria, that are imperceptible to the classic senses. Lastly, this review will suggest ways to apply the newfound knowledge of the sixth sense to understand a placebo effect and to treat human disease.

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