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A fundamental problem to our understanding of how our immune system functions is the means by which the body determines the difference between cells that belong to us and foreign substances, or antigens. When this ability breaks down and the body treats our own cells as antigens (auto antigens) we have an autoimmune dysfunction. Our immune system then attacks the cells of our own tissues, as well as invading antigens. It is now thought that the fetus while developing learns to make this distinction as a result of a direct contact between the body's own substances and receptor sites that are on the surface of the white blood cells. In this way the immune system learns to recognize itself and so disarms the antigen-antibody reaction in relation to its own natural substances. As we grow through life, however, there are many ways for the central mechanisms of self-recognition to break down. Usually this breakdown involves some kind of disruption of the normal pathways of interactions between the B- and T-lymphocytes with our own cells, our auto-antigens. These autoimmune disruptions usually result in malignancies, immune deficiency syndromes, injuries and aging.
HYPER AND HYPO-IMUNITY
Our natural immune response can also be either over active or under active, hyper-immunity and hypo-immunity, respectively. For instance, asthma is currently thought to be a problem of a hyper-immune response, since it usually involves a hyper irritability of the bronchial mucosa in the lungs with the eosinophil white blood cells. Cancerous growths on the other hand, can be seen as the result of a hypo-immune response. Cancer cells are not abnormalities. They are always present in our body throughout our entire lifetimes, even though clinically recognizable tumors may never be present. As an example, neutroblastomas, that are forms of cancer cells, are much higher in babies than in situations where there is clinical evidence of cancerous growths. Also, postmortem autopsies of practically all males over 50 years old show prostate cancer cells, even though most have no evidence of cancer. Since most people do not develop cancer, even though cancer cells are always produced, our body must have some natural immunological surveillance system that seeks out and destroys the single cancer cells before they can grow into clinically observable tumors. When this system is suppressed, however, cancers will be clinically found. In general, it is found that stress induced release of adrenocorticosteroids causes a suppression of this natural immunological protection system. The resulting hypo-immunity then allows the growth of tumors.
Normal cells all have genes that receive messenger molecules from the mind-modulating central control processes of the limbic-hypothalamic system via the autonomic and endocrine systems. Cancer most likely begins when these normal growth-regulating genes are damaged and turned into cancer-producing oncogenes. Normal genes that are turned into oncogenes occupy positions on the chromosomes that are vulnerable to damage. They are called "proto-oncogenes" and are converted into oncogenes by "carcinogens." Radiation from X-rays, radioactivity, and excess sunlight, toxins such as smoke and chemicals foreign to the body, and a variety of viruses are among the most well-known carcinogens. They enter the cell nucleus during a vulnerable stage of cell division and transform a proto-oncogene into an oncogene by (1) causing a genetic mutation in the structure of the growth protein, or (2) breaking the normal arrangement in which the genes are recombined into chromosomes. Oncogenes speed up or change the structure of proteins that the cell manufacturers so that growth becomes wildly uncontrolled in the form of useless tissues and tumors that eventually take over the entire body and kill it.
There are a number of natural and acquired defenses against the growth and spread of cancer cells, once they are formed. Three of these defenses are Interferon, Interleukin, and Tumor Necrosis Factor (TNF). Interferon is a protein messenger molecule that facilitates the process of innate immunity, our natural defense against infection. It is an immunological factor released by T-cells and macrophages and increases the effect of natural killer cells. Interleukin is a naturally present protein messenger that operates as a hormone. It is a messenger molecule that communicates between the T- and B-cells and macrophages to facilitate their defense against toxins and even fully formed cancers. TNF is another natural form of innate immunity against pathogens. When bacteria invade the body and macrophages increase, they secrete the protein TNF which can directly attack cancer cells and tissues as well.
There is a product of genetic engineering called monoclonals that holds promise for destroying a wide variety of cancers. They are produced by first removing a sample of cancer cells from the patient's body and injecting them into a mouse. The mouse's immune system then produces B-cells that have antibodies designed to attack that particular cancer; that is, an acquired immunity is produced. These B-cells with the cancer antibody are then removed from the mouse and fused with another fast-dividing line of cancer cells in a test tube to produce an "hybridoma". These are hybrid cells that mass produce the monoclonal with the specific antibody for the patient's tumor. Monoclonals are thus a deadly messenger molecule for a specific cancer-fighting mission.
The receptors on the surface of the T- and B-lymphocyte cells can turn on, direct, and modify their immune functions. They are like locks that can be opened to turn on the activities of each cell. The keys that open these locks are the messenger molecules of the four basic parts of our limbic hypothalamic system. These messenger molecules are the neurotransmitters of the autonomic nervous system, the hormones of the endocrine system, the immuno-transmitters of the immune system, and the neuropeptides of the neuropeptide system. These chemical transmitters must fit precisely into the structure of the cell receptors to turn on or off the specific cell activity. This has given us a profound insight into the essentially architectural nature of life. Messenger molecule and cell receptor communication is the psycho-biological basis of mind-body healing, therapeutic hypnosis, the placebo response, and holistic medicine in general. The pituitary gland at the base of the brain is the master gland of the endocrine system. It secretes hormones as messenger molecules into the blood stream to regulate the other hormone producing organs and is, in turn, modulated by the limbic-hypothalamic system. Virtually all the organs of the endocrine system can either mediate or be the loci of psychosomatic problems. Thus these messenger molecules integrate data and behavior from previously separated fields of knowledge in psychology, neurology, anatomy, biochemistry and molecular biology.
Neuropeptides are chemicals that act as messengers within the nervous system. They enable different body systems, such as the endocrine system which regulates hormones, the digestive system, the reproductive system and the immune system, to send signals to one another. They slip into the receptors on the surface of the cells and turn on relevant body processes. Endorphins are neuropeptides that are natural opiates in the brain that generate pleasurable responses. The brain can actually produce chemicals that change physical reactions. As emotions fluctuate peptides sweep through the body systems in response, signaling physical changes such as rise in blood pressure or relaxation of muscles. Viruses use the same receptors as neuropeptides, so whether or not a virus can enter a cell may depend on how much of the appropriate type of neuropeptide is around to block it.
The neuropeptide system operates in six primary areas of activity: the limbic-hypothalamic system; the brain stem and spinal cord system; the immune system; the endocrine system; the enteric or gastro-intestinal system; and the sexual system. All these body systems are joined in communication by the neuropeptides and the cell receptors. The neuropeptide system appears to be the coordinating system via its messenger molecules of the central and autonomic nervous systems, the endocrine and the immune systems. This system contains flexible, easily changeable patterns of information. The receptors and highly individualized responses are easily changed as a function of life experience, memory and learning.
Since the neuropeptides are transmitted through all the body fluids (blood, lymph, cerebral spinal fluid) as well as between neurons it is not confined to traditional neuronal circuits of the central nervous system. Neuropeptides mediate by the mind's body image via the limbic-hypothalamic system. This gives a recognizable biological basis to many mind-body effects that were thought to be caused by mere imagination and are therefore unreal. There now seems to be a recognizable biological basis for many hypnotherapeutic, psycho-social and placebo responses and there appears to be a psychobiological basis of folk, shamanistic and spiritual forms of healing currently called holistic medicine. Neuropeptides probably represent the biochemical substrate of emotions.