With the emergence of allergic and autoimmune diseases in populations that have started to transit to a western lifestyle, there has been an increasing interest in the role of environmental factors modulating early immune function. Yet, most of the information concerning neonatal immune function has been derived from studies in westernized countries. We postulate that comparative studies of early immune development in children born under conditions that are typical for a westernized vs. that of a still more traditional setting will provide a crucial insight into the environmental-driven immunological mechanisms that are responsible for the world-wide rise in inflammatory disorders. In this review, we summarize the current understanding of early-life immune function in humans in general and the literature on some major lifestyle factors that may influence neonatal immune function and potentially the risk for disease in later life. An understanding of the mechanisms of 'prenatal/early-life programming' in populations living in traditional compared with modern societies is crucial to develop strategies to prevent a further rise in 'western diseases' such as allergic disorders. Indications exist that prenatal conditioning of the innate immune system by low-grade inflammatory responses is key to inducing more tightly regulated postnatal adaptive immune responses.
© 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.