Obesity results in adipose tissue T cell exhaustion

JCI Insight. 2021 Apr 22;6(8):e139793. doi: 10.1172/jci.insight.139793.


Despite studies implicating adipose tissue T cells (ATT) in the initiation and persistence of adipose tissue inflammation, fundamental gaps in knowledge regarding ATT function impedes progress toward understanding how obesity influences adaptive immunity. We hypothesized that ATT activation and function would have tissue-resident-specific properties and that obesity would potentiate their inflammatory properties. We assessed ATT activation and inflammatory potential within mouse and human stromal vascular fraction (SVF). Surprisingly, murine and human ATTs from obese visceral white adipose tissue exhibited impaired inflammatory characteristics upon stimulation. Both environmental and cell-intrinsic factors are implicated in ATT dysfunction. Soluble factors from obese SVF inhibit ATT activation. Additionally, chronic signaling from macrophage major histocompatibility complex II (MHCII) is necessary for ATT impairment in obese adipose tissue but is independent of increased PD1 expression. To assess intracellular signaling mechanisms responsible for ATT inflammation impairments, single-cell RNA sequencing of ATTs was performed. ATTs in obese adipose tissue exhibit enrichment of genes characteristic of T cell exhaustion and increased expression of coinhibitory receptor Btla. In sum, this work suggests that obesity-induced ATTs have functional characteristics and gene expression resembling T cell exhaustion induced by local soluble factors and cell-to-cell interactions in adipose tissue.

Keywords: Adipose tissue; Inflammation; Metabolism; Obesity; T cells.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptive Immunity / immunology*
  • Adipose Tissue / immunology*
  • Adipose Tissue, White / immunology
  • Animals
  • CD4-Positive T-Lymphocytes / immunology
  • CD8-Positive T-Lymphocytes / immunology
  • Histocompatibility Antigens Class II / immunology
  • Humans
  • Intra-Abdominal Fat / immunology*
  • Macrophages / immunology
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Middle Aged
  • Obesity / immunology*
  • Programmed Cell Death 1 Receptor / immunology
  • Receptors, Immunologic / immunology
  • T-Lymphocyte Subsets / immunology
  • T-Lymphocytes / immunology*


  • BTLA protein, human
  • BTLA protein, mouse
  • Histocompatibility Antigens Class II
  • Programmed Cell Death 1 Receptor
  • Receptors, Immunologic