Neuroendocrine control of thymus physiology

Endocr Rev. 2000 Aug;21(4):412-43. doi: 10.1210/edrv.21.4.0402.


The thymus gland is a central lymphoid organ in which bone marrow-derived T cell precursors undergo differentiation, eventually leading to migration of positively selected thymocytes to the peripheral lymphoid organs. This differentiation occurs along with cell migration in the context of the thymic microenvironment, formed of epithelial cells, macrophages, dendritic cells, fibroblasts, and extracellular matrix components. Various interactions occurring between microenvironmental cells and differentiating thymocytes are under neuroendocrine control. In this review, we summarize data showing that thymus physiology is pleiotropically influenced by hormones and neuropeptides. These molecules modulate the expression of major histocompatibility complex gene products by microenvironmental cells and the extracellular matrix-mediated interactions, leading to enhanced thymocyte adhesion to thymic epithelial cells. Cytokine production and thymic endocrine function (herein exemplified by thymulin production) are also hormonally controlled, and, interestingly in this latter case, a bidirectional circuitry seems to exist since thymic-derived peptides also modulate hormonal production. In addition to their role in thymic cell proliferation and apoptosis, hormones and neuropeptides also modulate intrathymic T cell differentiation, influencing the generation of the T cell repertoire. Finally, neuroendocrine control of the thymus appears extremely complex, with possible influence of biological circuitry involving the intrathymic production of a variety of hormones and neuropeptides and the expression of their respective receptors by thymic cells.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Differentiation
  • Cell Division
  • Cell Membrane / physiology
  • Cytokines / metabolism
  • Extracellular Matrix / physiology
  • Hormones / physiology
  • Humans
  • Neuropeptides / physiology
  • Neurosecretory Systems / physiology*
  • T-Lymphocytes
  • Thymus Gland / cytology
  • Thymus Gland / physiology*


  • Cytokines
  • Hormones
  • Neuropeptides