OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology
The worst cases of the immune system over-reacting are autoimmune diseases. Somehow, tolerance breaks down and the immune systems in individuals with these diseases begin to attack their own bodies, causing significant damage. The trigger for these diseases is, more often than not, unknown, and the treatments are usually based on resolving the symptoms using immunosuppressive and anti-inflammatory drugs such as steroids. These diseases can be localized and crippling, as in rheumatoid arthritis, or diffuse in the body with multiple symptoms that differ in different individuals, as is the case with systemic lupus erythematosus.
Environmental triggers seem to play large roles in autoimmune responses. One explanation for the breakdown of tolerance is that, after certain bacterial infections, an immune response to a component of the bacterium cross-reacts with a self-antigen. This mechanism is seen in rheumatic fever, a result of infection with Streptococcus bacteria, which causes strep throat. The antibodies to this pathogen’s M protein cross-react with an antigenic component of heart myosin, a major contractile protein of the heart that is critical to its normal function. The antibody binds to these molecules and activates complement proteins, causing damage to the heart, especially to the heart valves. On the other hand, some theories propose that having multiple common infectious diseases actually prevents autoimmune responses. The fact that autoimmune diseases are rare in countries that have a high incidence of infectious diseases supports this idea.
There are genetic factors in autoimmune diseases as well. Some diseases are associated with the MHC genes that an individual expresses. The reason for this association is likely because if one’s MHC molecules are not able to present a certain self-antigen, then that particular autoimmune disease cannot occur. Overall, there are more than 80 different autoimmune diseases, which are a significant health problem in the elderly.
Betts, J. G., Young, K. A., Wise, J. A., Johnson, E., Poe, B., Kruse, D. H., … DeSaix, P. (n.d.). Anatomy and Physiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/anatomy-and-physiology