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What is a Memory Cell?

By C. Martin
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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In biology, a memory cell refers to one of a number of types of cells that make up part of the immune system. These cells are a vital part of the system that defends the body against pathogens such as bacteria or viruses that cause disease and infection. They are one type of white blood cell or lymphocyte. There are two main types, called memory T cells and memory B cells. T cells activate the immune system and directly attack pathogens, while B cells produce substances called antibodies, which can disable or kill pathogens.

A memory cell starts its life in the bone marrow, where lymphocytes are made. It is then transported around the body in lymph, a clear liquid that, among other functions, transports lymphocytes to regions of infection. Lymph is transported around the body via the lymphatic system, a network of vessels and tissues throughout the body.

The function of these cells is characterized by the memory present in acquired immunity. Once a memory cell, either a T cell or a B cell, has been exposed to a specific pathogen, it will react much more rapidly when it encounters the same pathogen in the future. This is the reason that some diseases can normally only be caught once by a person. If a person suffers from an infection such as measles, these cells "learn" how to get rid of the virus that causes the disease. Once the measles virus has been successfully fought off once, then any future infections with measles viruses will normally be repulsed without the person becoming ill.

Another example of how such cells work in the immune system includes vaccination. A vaccine actually contains the pathogen that causes the disease that the vaccine is designed to prevent. The pathogen is either weakened or dead so that it is not usually strong enough to make the recipient of the vaccine ill. In its weakened form, it still stimulates the immune system, allowing the B and T cells to "learn" how to fight off that specific pathogen. In the future, if the person is exposed to the pathogen in its virulent form, he or she is much more likely to be able to recover from the infection quickly, either not becoming ill or only suffering a mild version of the disease.

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Discussion Comments
By anon936057 — On Feb 27, 2014

We are learning about this in science class and we had to do a project. This really helped me to finish.

By JillT — On Feb 14, 2011

@sapphire12 – Good point. Vaccinations can also help T cells long-term memories so they can keep us from getting certain diseases at all. Unfortunately there are certain autoimmune diseases which the T cells just don’t know how to fight. In this case, all that can be done is to manage the symptoms.

By sapphire12 — On Jan 23, 2011

I originally thought that memory cells related in some way to the brain, but it makes a lot of sense that they are another name for white blood cells, which have to "remember" how to fight off diseases in the body constantly. This name for them is also another way to easily make the mental connection between white blood cells and why people with a disease which affects them have such a reduced immune system- in this way, their bodies have almost literally "lost" their memories.

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