Adrenergic control of circulating lymphocyte subpopulations. Effects of congestive heart failure, dynamic exercise, and terbutaline treatment

J Clin Invest. 1990 Feb;85(2):462-7. doi: 10.1172/JCI114460.


The current studies were undertaken to explore the relationship between enhanced sympathetic nervous activity and lymphocyte subset distribution in three settings: congestive heart failure, dynamic exercise, and beta-adrenergic agonist treatment. We compared the number and subset distribution of circulating lymphocytes in 36 patients with congestive heart failure and 31 age-matched control subjects. The number of circulating lymphocytes was lower in heart failure than in control. This was due to a reduction in Tsuppressor/cytotoxic and natural killer cells without significant alteration of Thelper cells. The extent of the alteration was similar in patients with idiopathic and ischemic heart failure, but the reduction was more pronounced in patients with New York Heart Association class III-IV than in class I-II. The plasma catecholamine elevation in heart failure was also independent of etiology but more pronounced in the more severely ill patients. We also assessed lymphocyte subsets after acute stimulation of sympathetic activity by dynamic exercise and after treatment with the beta-adrenergic agonist terbutaline. Dynamic exercise until exhaustion increased the number of circulating lymphocytes in healthy controls and heart failure patients in a subset-selective manner. By contrast, a 7-d treatment with terbutaline caused a reduction in the circulating number of lymphocytes in some subsets that was identical to that seen in heart failure patients. We conclude that prolonged sympathetic activity reduces the number of circulating lymphocytes by a beta-adrenergic mechanism. Such alterations might be involved in the pathophysiology of heart failure and other disease states involving increased activity of the sympathetic nervous system.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Heart Failure / blood*
  • Humans
  • Leukocyte Count
  • Lymphocytes / drug effects
  • Lymphocytes / physiology*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Physical Exertion*
  • Receptors, Adrenergic, beta / drug effects
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / physiology*
  • Terbutaline / pharmacology*


  • Receptors, Adrenergic, beta
  • Terbutaline