Children raised in rural environments, who spend a significant amount of time outdoors and have some exposure to animals, develop better regulated immune systems compared to children living in urban areas, according to a new study conducted by APC Microbiome Ireland (APC) and University College Cork (UCC). The research highlights the crucial role that a child’s living environment and lifestyle play in the early development of their immune system. The immune system must learn to avoid overreacting in early life to prevent excessive reactions later in life that can lead to disease.
The study focused on children aged 15-35 months in South Africa, living in both rural and urban areas. The scientists investigated the link between environmental factors and the presence of atopic dermatitis (AD) or eczema. The researchers discovered that children living in rural areas have multiple ways of identifying and dealing with threats within their immune systems. During childhood, our bodies develop various immune pathways in response to “protective exposures” like spending time outdoors and with animals, as well as “potentially detrimental exposures” such as pollutants and viruses.
These findings support existing evidence that exposure to specific environmental stimuli and lifestyle factors during childhood can have significant implications for a person’s short- and long-term health. The research was a collaboration between APC Microbiome Ireland, UCC, the University of Cape Town, the Swiss Institute of Allergy and Asthma Research, Stanford University, and the Karolinska Institute.
Prof. Liam O’Mahony, APC principal investigator and UCC professor of Immunology, led the study. He emphasized the importance of the “immunological window of opportunity” in establishing the limitations and reaction trajectories of our immune system, which persist throughout our lives and influence the risk of immune-mediated diseases. Prof. O’Mahony stated, “These protective and detrimental early life environmental exposures help shape our immune response.” He further highlighted the significance of expanding our understanding of the mechanisms and role of the environment in immune development. This research can pave the way for new advancements in early disease diagnosis and the development of interventions that can more specifically and safely modulate immune activity.