The lymphocytic cholinergic system and its contribution to the regulation of immune activity

Life Sci. 2003 Dec 26;74(6):675-96. doi: 10.1016/j.lfs.2003.09.037.


Lymphocytes express most of the cholinergic components found in the nervous system, including acetylcholine (ACh), choline acetyltransferase (ChAT), high affinity choline transporter, muscarinic and nicotinic ACh receptors (mAChRs and nAChRs, respectively), and acetylcholinesterase. Stimulation of T and B cells with ACh or another mAChR agonist elicits intracellular Ca2+ signaling, up-regulation of c-fos expression, increased nitric oxide synthesis and IL-2-induced signal transduction, probably via M3 and M5 mAChR-mediated pathways. Acute stimulation of nAChRs with ACh or nicotine causes rapid and transient Ca2+ signaling in T and B cells, probably via alpha7 nAChR subunit-mediated pathways. Chronic nicotine stimulation, by contrast, down-regulates nAChR expression and suppresses T cell activity. Activation of T cells with phytohemagglutinin or antibodies against cell surface molecules enhances lymphocytic cholinergic transmission by activating expression of ChAT and M5 mAChR, which is suggestive of local cholinergic regulation of immune system activity. This idea is supported by the facts that lymphocytic cholinergic activity reflects well the changes in immune system function seen in animal models of immune deficiency and immune acceleration. Collectively, these data provide a compelling picture in which lymphocytes constitute a cholinergic system that is independent of cholinergic nerves, and which is involved in the regulation of immune function.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Acetylcholine / metabolism*
  • Animals
  • Autonomic Nervous System / metabolism*
  • Cholinergic Fibers / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Immune System / physiology*
  • Lymphocytes / immunology*
  • Lymphocytes / metabolism*


  • Acetylcholine