Acute exercise mobilises CD8+ T lymphocytes exhibiting an effector-memory phenotype

Brain Behav Immun. 2009 Aug;23(6):767-75. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2009.02.011. Epub 2009 Feb 28.


An acute bout of exercise evokes mobilisation of lymphocytes into the bloodstream, which can be largely attributed to increases in CD8+ T lymphocytes (CD8TLs) and natural killer (NK) cells. Evidence further suggests that, even within these lymphocyte subsets, there is preferential mobilisation of cells that share certain functional and phenotypic characteristics, such as high cytotoxicity, low proliferative ability, and high tissue-migrating potential. These features are characteristic of effector-memory CD8TL subsets. The current study therefore investigated the effect of exercise on these newly-identified subsets. Thirteen healthy and physically active males (mean+/-SD: age 20.9+/-1.5 yr) attended three sessions: a control session (no exercise); cycling at 35% Watt(max) (low intensity exercise); and 85% Watt(max) (high intensity exercise). Each bout lasted 20 min. Blood samples were obtained before exercise, during the final min of exercise, and +15, and +60 min post-exercise. CD8TLs were classified into naïve, central memory (CM), effector-memory (EM), and CD45RA+ effector-memory (RAEM) using combinations of the cell surface markers CCR7, CD27, CD62L, CD57, and CD45RA. In parallel, the phenotypically distinct CD56(bright) 'regulatory' and CD56(dim) 'cytotoxic' NK subsets were quantified. The results show a strong differential mobilisation of CD8TL subsets (RAEM>EM>CM>naïve); during high intensity exercise the greatest increase was observed for RAEM CD8Tls (+450%) and the smallest for naïve cells (+84%). Similarly, CD56(dim) NK cells (+995%) were mobilised to a greater extent than CD56(bright) (+153%) NK cells. In conclusion, memory CD8TL that exhibit a high effector and tissue-migrating potential are preferentially mobilised during exercise. This finding unifies a range of independent observations regarding exercise-induced phenotypic and functional changes in circulating lymphocytes. The selective mobilisation of cytotoxic tissue-migrating subsets, both within the NK and CD8TL population, may enhance immune-surveillance during exercise.

MeSH terms

  • Antigens, Surface / immunology
  • CD4-Positive T-Lymphocytes / physiology
  • CD8-Positive T-Lymphocytes / immunology*
  • CD8-Positive T-Lymphocytes / physiology*
  • Carbon Dioxide / metabolism
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Exercise Test
  • Humans
  • Immunologic Memory / physiology*
  • Killer Cells, Natural / immunology
  • Killer Cells, Natural / physiology
  • Lymphocyte Subsets / immunology
  • Male
  • Oxygen Consumption / physiology
  • Phenotype
  • Young Adult


  • Antigens, Surface
  • Carbon Dioxide