The thymus is a common target in malnutrition and infection

Br J Nutr. 2007 Oct;98 Suppl 1:S11-6. doi: 10.1017/S0007114507832880.


Malnutrition, secondary to deficiency in intake of proteins, minerals or vitamins, consistently results in changes in the thymus. This organ undergoes a severe atrophy due to apoptosis-induced thymocyte depletion, particularly affecting the immature CD4+CD8+ cells, as well as a decrease in cell proliferation. This feature is apparently linked to a hormonal imbalance, involving a decrease in leptin and consequent increase in glucocorticoid hormone levels in the serum. The thymic microenvironment is also affected in malnutrition: morphological changes in thymic epithelial cells have been found, together with a decrease of thymic hormone production by these cells. Additionally, intrathymic contents of extracellular proteins, such as fibronectin, laminin and collagens, are increased in thymuses from malnourished children. Taken together, these data clearly point to the notion that the thymus is significantly affected in malnutrition. Similar patterns of thymic changes occur in acute infectious diseases, including a severe atrophy of the organ, mainly due to the apoptosis-related depletion of immature CD4+CD8+ thymocytes. Additionally, thymocyte proliferation is compromised in acutely-infected subjects. The microenvironmental compartment of the thymus is also affected in acute infections, with an increased density of the epithelial network and an increase in the deposition of extracellular matrix. In conclusion, it seems clear that the thymus is targeted in malnutrition as well as in acute infections. These changes are related to the impaired peripheral immune response seen in malnourished and infected individuals. Thus, strategies inducing thymus replenishment should be considered in therapeutic approaches, in both malnutrition and acute infectious diseases.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease
  • Atrophy / etiology
  • Atrophy / immunology
  • Communicable Diseases / complications*
  • Communicable Diseases / immunology
  • Humans
  • Immunophenotyping
  • Malnutrition / complications*
  • Malnutrition / immunology
  • Opportunistic Infections / complications
  • Opportunistic Infections / immunology
  • T-Lymphocytes / pathology
  • Thymus Gland / immunology
  • Thymus Gland / pathology*