Thymic involution: where endocrinology meets immunology

Neuroimmunomodulation. 2011;18(5):281-9. doi: 10.1159/000329496. Epub 2011 Sep 22.


The decline in immune function with aging represents a major clinical challenge in many disease conditions. It is manifest in many parameters but is essentially linked to the adaptive immune responses. The prediction would be that abnormalities in both T and B lymphocytes underlie the loss of cellular and humoral capacity, respectively. Somewhat surprisingly, this is not reflected in numerical losses but more in alterations at the population and single cell levels. There is a major reduction in naïve T cells with a proportional increase in memory cells, and also a generally reduced function of these cells. While bone marrow function reduces with age, the most obvious reason for the T cell defects is the severe atrophy of the thymus. This is closely aligned with puberty, thereby implicating a major aetiological role for sex steroids in both thymus and immune system deterioration with age. Accordingly surgical or chemical castration (utilizing luteinizing hormone-releasing hormone) blocks sex steroids resulting in profound rejuvenation of the immune system.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Allergy and Immunology*
  • Animals
  • Endocrine System / physiology*
  • Endocrinology*
  • Humans
  • Immune System / physiology*