Maladaptive immune responses toward harmless foreign substances or self antigens that occur after tissue sensitization are termed hypersensitivities. The types of hypersensitivities include immediate, delayed, and autoimmunity. A large proportion of the population is affected by one or more types of hypersensitivity.
The immune reaction that results from immediate hypersensitivities in which an antibody-mediated immune response occurs within minutes of exposure to a harmless antigen is called an allergy. In the United States, 20 percent of the population exhibits symptoms of allergy or asthma, whereas 55 percent test positive against one or more allergens. Upon initial exposure to a potential allergen, an allergic individual synthesizes antibodies of the IgE class via the typical process of APCs presenting processed antigen to TH cells that stimulate B cells to produce IgE. This class of antibodies also mediates the immune response to parasitic worms. The constant domain of the IgE molecules interact with mast cells embedded in connective tissues. This process primes, or sensitizes, the tissue. Upon subsequent exposure to the same allergen, IgE molecules on mast cells bind the antigen via their variable domains and stimulate the mast cell to release the modified amino acids histamine and serotonin; these chemical mediators then recruit eosinophils which mediate allergic responses.
Figure 1 shows an example of an allergic response to ragweed pollen. The effects of an allergic reaction range from mild symptoms like sneezing and itchy, watery eyes to more severe or even life-threatening reactions involving intensely itchy welts or hives, airway contraction with severe respiratory distress, and plummeting blood pressure. This extreme reaction is known as anaphylactic shock. If not treated with epinephrine to counter the blood pressure and breathing effects, this condition can be fatal.
Delayed hypersensitivity is a cell-mediated immune response that takes approximately one to two days after secondary exposure for a maximal reaction to be observed. This type of hypersensitivity involves the TH1 cytokine-mediated inflammatory response and may manifest as local tissue lesions or contact dermatitis (rash or skin irritation). Delayed hypersensitivity occurs in some individuals in response to contact with certain types of jewelry or cosmetics. Delayed hypersensitivity facilitates the immune response to poison ivy and is also the reason why the skin test for tuberculosis results in a small region of inflammation on individuals who were previously exposed to Mycobacterium tuberculosis. That is also why cortisone is used to treat such responses: it will inhibit cytokine production.
Autoimmunity is a type of hypersensitivity to self antigens that affects approximately five percent of the population. Most types of autoimmunity involve the humoral immune response. Antibodies that inappropriately mark self components as foreign are termed autoantibodies. In patients with the autoimmune disease myasthenia gravis, muscle cell receptors that induce contraction in response to acetylcholine are targeted by antibodies. The result is muscle weakness that may include marked difficultly with fine and/or gross motor functions. In systemic lupus erythematosus, a diffuse autoantibody response to the individual’s own DNA and proteins results in various systemic diseases. As illustrated in Figure 2, systemic lupus erythematosus may affect the heart, joints, lungs, skin, kidneys, central nervous system, or other tissues, causing tissue damage via antibody binding, complement recruitment, lysis, and inflammation.
Autoimmunity can develop with time, and its causes may be rooted in molecular mimicry. Antibodies and TCRs may bind self antigens that are structurally similar to pathogen antigens, which the immune receptors first raised. As an example, infection with Streptococcus pyogenes (bacterium that causes strep throat) may generate antibodies or T cells that react with heart muscle, which has a similar structure to the surface of S. pyogenes. These antibodies can damage heart muscle with autoimmune attacks, leading to rheumatic fever. Insulin-dependent (Type 1) diabetes mellitus arises from a destructive inflammatory TH1 response against insulin-producing cells of the pancreas. Patients with this autoimmunity must be injected with insulin that originates from other sources.