Delta(9)-tetrahydrocannabinol-induced apoptosis in the thymus and spleen as a mechanism of immunosuppression in vitro and in vivo

J Pharmacol Exp Ther. 2002 Aug;302(2):451-65. doi: 10.1124/jpet.102.033506.


Delta(9)-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive component of marijuana has been shown to suppress the immune response. However, the exact mechanism of THC-induced immunosuppression remains unclear. In the current study, we tested the hypothesis that exposure to THC leads to the induction of apoptosis in lymphocyte populations. Splenocytes of C57BL/6 mice cultured in the presence of 10 microM or greater concentrations of THC showed significantly reduced proliferative response to mitogens, including anti-CD3 monoclonal antibodies (mAbs), concanavalin A (Con A), and lipopolysaccharide (LPS) in vitro. Thymocytes and naive and activated splenocytes exposed to 10 microM or 20 microM THC showed significantly increased levels of apoptosis. Treatment with CB2 antagonist inhibited THC-induced apoptosis in thymocytes and activated splenocytes. Administration of 10 mg/kg body weight of THC into C57BL/6 mice led to thymic and splenic atrophy as early as 6 h after treatment. This effect could be partially inhibited by treatment with a caspase inhibitor in vivo. THC exposure led to reductions in the numbers of all subpopulations of splenocytes and thymocytes examined. Functional studies revealed that splenocytes from THC-treated mice had significantly reduced proliferative response to anti-CD3 mAbs, Con A, and LPS in vitro. Finally, thymocytes and splenocytes exposed to THC in vivo exhibited apoptosis upon in vitro culture. Together, these results suggest that in vivo exposure to THC can lead to significant suppression of the immune response by induction of apoptosis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Apoptosis / drug effects*
  • Camphanes
  • Concanavalin A
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Dronabinol / pharmacology*
  • Female
  • Immune Tolerance / drug effects
  • Immune Tolerance / physiology*
  • Lymphocyte Activation / drug effects*
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Piperidines / pharmacology
  • Pyrazoles / pharmacology
  • Receptors, Cannabinoid
  • Receptors, Drug / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Rimonabant
  • Spleen / cytology
  • Spleen / drug effects
  • Spleen / immunology*
  • Thymus Gland / cytology
  • Thymus Gland / drug effects
  • Thymus Gland / immunology*


  • Camphanes
  • Piperidines
  • Pyrazoles
  • Receptors, Cannabinoid
  • Receptors, Drug
  • SR 144528
  • Concanavalin A
  • Dronabinol
  • Rimonabant