Immunological Memory


Related Posts

Illustration shows activation of a B cell. An antigen on the surface of a bacterium binds the B cell receptor. The b cell engulfs the antigen, and presents an epitope on its surface in conjunction with a M H C I I receptor. A T cell receptor and C D 4 molecule on the surface of a helper T cell recognize the epitopes M H C I I complex and activate the B cell. The B cell divides and turns into memory B cells and plasma cells. Memory B cells present antigen on their surface. Plasma B cells excrete antigen.
After initially binding an antigen to the B cell receptor (BCR), a B cell internalizes the antigen and presents it on MHC II. A helper T cell recognizes the MHC II–antigen complex and activates the B cell. As a result, memory B cells and plasma cells are made. Source: OpenStax Biology 2e

OpenStax Biology 2e

The adaptive immune system possesses a memory component that allows for an efficient and dramatic response upon reinvasion of the same pathogen. Memory is handled by the adaptive immune system with little reliance on cues from the innate response. During the adaptive immune response to a pathogen that has not been encountered before, called a primary response, plasma cells secreting antibodies and differentiated T cells increase, then plateau over time. As B and T cells mature into effector cells, a subset of the naïve populations differentiates into B and T memory cells with the same antigen specificities.

A memory cell is an antigen-specific B or T lymphocyte that does not differentiate into effector cells during the primary immune response, but that can immediately become effector cells upon reexposure to the same pathogen. During the primary immune response, memory cells do not respond to antigens and do not contribute to host defenses. As the infection is cleared and pathogenic stimuli subside, the effectors are no longer needed, and they undergo apoptosis. In contrast, the memory cells persist in the circulation.

If the pathogen is never encountered again during the individual’s lifetime, B and T memory cells will circulate for a few years or even several decades and will gradually die off, having never functioned as effector cells. However, if the host is reexposed to the same pathogen type, circulating memory cells will immediately differentiate into plasma cells and CTLs without input from APCs or TH cells. One reason the adaptive immune response is delayed is because it takes time for naïve B and T cells with the appropriate antigen specificities to be identified and activated. Upon reinfection, this step is skipped, and the result is a more rapid production of immune defenses. Memory B cells that differentiate into plasma cells output tens to hundreds-fold greater antibody amounts than were secreted during the primary response. This rapid and dramatic antibody response may stop the infection before it can even become established, and the individual may not realize he or she had been exposed.

Bar graph plots antibody concentration versus primary and secondary immune response. During the primary immune response, a low concentration of antibody is produced. During the secondary immune response, about three times as much antibody is produced.
In the primary response to infection, antibodies are secreted first from plasma cells. Upon reexposure to the same pathogen, memory cells differentiate into antibody-secreting plasma cells that output a greater amount of antibody for a longer period of time. Source: OpenStax Biology 2e

Vaccination is based on the knowledge that exposure to noninfectious antigens, derived from known pathogens, generates a mild primary immune response. The immune response to vaccination may not be perceived by the host as illness but still confers immune memory. When exposed to the corresponding pathogen to which an individual was vaccinated, the reaction is similar to a secondary exposure. Because each reinfection generates more memory cells and increased resistance to the pathogen, and because some memory cells die, certain vaccine courses involve one or more booster vaccinations to mimic repeat exposures: for instance, tetanus boosters are necessary every ten years because the memory cells only live that long.


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:

0 0 vote
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments