The learned immune response: Pavlov and beyond

Brain Behav Immun. 2010 Feb;24(2):176-85. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2009.08.007. Epub 2009 Aug 19.


The ability to associate physiological changes with a specific flavor was most likely acquired during evolution as an adaptive strategy aimed at protecting the organism while preparing it for danger. The behaviorally conditioned or learned immune response is an exquisite example of the bidirectional communication between the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral immune system. How is it possible that specific immuno-modulating properties of a drug or substance (unconditioned stimulus) can be re-enlisted just by the mere re-exposure to a particular taste, odor or environment (conditioned stimulus)? To answer this key question, we review the neurobiological mechanism mediating this type of associative learning, as well as the pathways and mechanisms employed by the brain to harness the immune system during the execution of the conditioned immune response. Finally, we focus on the potential therapeutic relevance of such learned immune responses, and their re-conceptualization within the framework of "learned placebo effects".

Publication types

  • Lecture
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Afferent Pathways / physiology
  • Animals
  • Brain / anatomy & histology
  • Brain / physiology
  • Conditioning, Classical / physiology*
  • Efferent Pathways / physiology
  • Humans
  • Immunity / physiology*
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Neurotransmitter Agents / physiology
  • Taste / physiology


  • Neurotransmitter Agents