A scanning electron-microscopic study of the rat thymus with special reference to cell types and migration of lymphocytes into the general circulation

Cell Tissue Res. 1986;244(2):285-98. doi: 10.1007/BF00219204.


The three-dimensional structure of the rat thymus was studied by combined scanning- and transmission electron microscopy. The thymus consists mainly of four types of cells: epithelial cells, lymphocytes, macrophages, and interdigitating cells (IDCs). The epithelial cells form a meshwork in the thymus parenchyma. Cortical epithelial cells are stellate in shape, while the medullary cells comprise two types: stellate and large vacuolated elements. A continuous single layer of epithelial cells separates the parenchyma from connective tissue formations of the capsule, septa and vessels. Surrounding the blood vessels, this epithelial sheath is continuous in the cortex, while it is partly interrupted in the medulla, suggesting that the blood-thymus barrier might function more completely in the cortex. Cortical lymphocytes are round and vary in size, whereas medullary lymphocytes are mainly small, although they vary considerably in surface morphology. Two types of large wandering cells, macrophages and IDCs, could be distinguished, as well as intermediate forms. IDCs sometimes embraced or contacted lymphocytes, suggesting their role in the differentiation of the latter cells. Perivascular channels were present around venules and some arterioles in the cortico-medullary region and in the medulla. A few lymphatic vessels were present in extended perivascular spaces. The present study suggests the possible existence of two routes of passage of lymphocytes into the general circulation. One is via the lymphatics, while the other is through the postcapillary venules into the blood circulation. Our SEM images give evidence that lymphocytes use an intracellular route, i.e., the endothelium of venules.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Movement
  • Epithelium / ultrastructure
  • Macrophages / ultrastructure
  • Male
  • Microscopy, Electron, Scanning
  • Rats
  • Rats, Inbred Strains
  • T-Lymphocytes / immunology*
  • Thymus Gland / ultrastructure*