Scientists discover how sleep boosts the immune system

Sleep has a direct effect on the ability of immune system cells to find their targets, a study has found.

A good night’s sleep really can be the best medicine.

Scientists have discovered that sleep improves the ability of immune cells to hit their targets and fight off infection.

While sleep helps to boost the body’s defences, chronic stress may make it more vulnerable to illness, the study suggests.

The German team investigated sticky proteins called integrins that are released by T-cells, a key element of the immune system.

Integrins allow T-cells to attach to a target, such as a cell infected by a harmful virus, and kill it.

T-cells taken from sleeping volunteers showed significantly higher levels of integrin activation than those from study participants who stayed awake all night, said the researchers.

The different response is thought to be linked to dipping levels of the hormones adrenaline and prostaglandin during sleep.

In tests, both hormones were shown to suppress integrin activation.

Dr Luciana Besedovsky, a member of the team from the University of Tubingen, said: “Our findings show that sleep has the potential to enhance the efficiency of T-cell responses, which is especially relevant in light of the high prevalence of sleep disorders and conditions characterised by impaired sleep, such as depression, chronic stress, ageing, and shift work.”

Several hormones, including those that suppress integrin activation, are known to be linked to cancer, malaria infection, hypoxia (oxygen starvation) and stress, said the researchers.

Study co-leader Dr Stoyan Dimitrov, also from the University of Tubingen, said: “This pathway may therefore contribute to the immune suppression associated with these pathologies.”

The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine, could aid the development of new therapies to improve the fighting ability of T-cells, according to the researchers.

This could be especially useful in forms of cancer immunotherapy that involve prompting T-cells to target and destroy tumour cells, they said.

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