The immunological synapse

Annu Rev Immunol. 2001;19:375-96. doi: 10.1146/annurev.immunol.19.1.375.


The adaptive immune response is initiated by the interaction of T cell antigen receptors with major histocompatibility complex molecule-peptide complexes in the nanometer scale gap between a T cell and an antigen-presenting cell, referred to as an immunological synapse. In this review we focus on the concept of immunological synapse formation as it relates to membrane structure, T cell polarity, signaling pathways, and the antigen-presenting cell. Membrane domains provide an organizational principle for compartmentalization within the immunological synapse. T cell polarization by chemokines increases T cell sensitivity to antigen. The current model is that signaling and formation of the immunological synapse are tightly interwoven in mature T cells. We also extend this model to natural killer cell activation, where the inhibitory NK synapse provides a striking example in which inhibition of signaling leaves the synapse in its nascent, inverted state. The APC may also play an active role in immunological synapse formation, particularly for activation of naïve T cells.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antigen Presentation / immunology*
  • Cell Adhesion
  • Cell Adhesion Molecules / physiology
  • Cell Communication
  • Cell Membrane / ultrastructure*
  • Cell Polarity
  • Chemokines / physiology
  • Cholera Toxin / pharmacology
  • Immunologic Capping
  • Killer Cells, Natural / immunology
  • Killer Cells, Natural / ultrastructure
  • Lymphocyte Activation / immunology*
  • Membrane Microdomains / physiology
  • Membrane Microdomains / ultrastructure
  • Mice
  • Models, Immunological
  • Receptor-CD3 Complex, Antigen, T-Cell / immunology
  • Receptor-CD3 Complex, Antigen, T-Cell / ultrastructure
  • Receptors, Antigen, T-Cell / immunology*
  • Receptors, Antigen, T-Cell / ultrastructure
  • Receptors, Chemokine / physiology
  • Receptors, Immunologic / immunology
  • Receptors, Immunologic / physiology
  • Receptors, Immunologic / ultrastructure
  • Signal Transduction
  • T-Lymphocyte Subsets / immunology
  • T-Lymphocyte Subsets / ultrastructure*


  • Cell Adhesion Molecules
  • Chemokines
  • Receptor-CD3 Complex, Antigen, T-Cell
  • Receptors, Antigen, T-Cell
  • Receptors, Chemokine
  • Receptors, Immunologic
  • Cholera Toxin