Autonomic innervation and regulation of the immune system (1987-2007)

Brain Behav Immun. 2007 Aug;21(6):736-45. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2007.03.008. Epub 2007 Apr 27.


Since 1987, only a few neuroanatomical studies have been conducted to identify the origin of innervation for the immune system. These studies demonstrated that all primary and secondary immune organs receive a substantial sympathetic innervation from sympathetic postganglionic neurons. Neither the thymus nor spleen receive any sensory neural innervation; however, there is evidence that lymph nodes and bone marrow may be innervated by sensory neurons located in dorsal root ganglia. There is no neuroanatomical evidence for a parasympathetic or vagal nerve supply to any immune organ. Thus, the primary pathway for the neural regulation of immune function is provided by the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and its main neurotransmitter, norepinephrine (NE). Activation of the SNS primarily inhibits the activity of cells associated with the innate immune system, while it either enhances or inhibits the activity of cells associated with the acquired/adaptive immune system. Innate immune cells express both alpha and beta-adrenergic receptor subtypes, while T and B lymphocytes express adrenergic receptors of the beta2 subtype exclusively, except for murine Th2 cells that lack expression of any subtype. Via these adrenergic receptors, NE is able to regulate the level of immune cell activity by initiating a change in the level of cellular activity, which often involves a change in the level of gene expression for cytokines and antibodies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / immunology
  • Animals
  • Autonomic Nervous System / immunology
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiology*
  • Bone Marrow / immunology
  • Bone Marrow / innervation*
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Innate / immunology
  • Lymph Nodes / immunology
  • Lymph Nodes / innervation*
  • Neuroimmunomodulation / physiology
  • Spleen / cytology
  • Spleen / immunology
  • Spleen / innervation*
  • Thymus Gland / cytology
  • Thymus Gland / immunology
  • Thymus Gland / innervation*