Activation of immune function by dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) in age-advanced men

J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 1997 Jan;52(1):M1-7. doi: 10.1093/gerona/52a.1.m1.


Background: Substantial data from animal studies have demonstrated a stimulatory effect of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) on immune function. However, little is known about the effects of DHEA on the human immune system. Since aging is associated with a decline in immune function and in DHEA production, we proposed that oral administration of DHEA to elderly men would result in activation of their immune system.

Methods: Nine healthy age-advanced men (mean age of 63 years) with low DHEA-sulfate levels participated in this study. They were treated nightly with an oral placebo for 2 weeks followed by DHEA (50 mg) for 20 weeks. Fasting (0800h-0900h) blood samples were obtained at 4- to 8-week intervals for immune function studies and hormone determinations. Freshly isolated peripheral lymphocytes were used for flow cytometric identification of lymphocyte subsets, cells expressing the IL-2 receptor (IL-2R), mitogen stimulation studies, and for determining natural killer (NK) cell number and cytotoxicity. Levels of interleukin-2 (IL-2) and IL-6 secreted from cultured lymphocytes were determined under basal and mitogen stimulated conditions. Sera were analyzed for soluble IL-2 Receptor (sIL-2R) levels, insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF-I) and IGF binding protein-I (IGFBP-I) concentrations.

Results: Baseline levels of serum DHEA sulfate (DHEAS), a stable marker of circulating DHEA levels, were 2 standard deviations below young adult values and increased 3-4 fold within 2 weeks. These levels were sustained throughout the duration of DHEA administration. When compared with placebo, DHEA administration resulted in a 20% increase (p < .01) in serum IGF-I, a decreasing trend in IGFBP-I, and a 32% increase in the ratio of IGF-I/IGFBP-I (p < .01). Activation of immune function occurred within 2-20 weeks of DHEA treatment. The number of monocytes increased significantly (p < .01) after 2 (45%) and 20 (35%) weeks of treatment. The population of B cells fluctuated with increases (p < .05) at 2 (35%) and 10 (29%) weeks of treatment. B cell mitogenic response increased 62% (p < .05) by 12 weeks unaccompanied by changes in serum IgG, IgA, and IgM levels. Total T cells and T cell subsets were unaltered. However, a 40% increase (p < .05) in T cell mitogenic response, 39% increase in cells expressing the IL-2R (CD25+) (p < .05), and 20% increase in serum sIL-2R levels (p < .01) were found at 12-20 weeks of DHEA treatment, suggesting a functional activation of T lymphocytes occurred. In vitro mitogen stimulated release of IL-2 and IL-6 was enhanced 50% (p < .05) and 30% (p < .01) respectively by 20 weeks of treatment without basal secretion being affected. NK cell number showed a 22-37% increase (p < .01) by 18-20 weeks of treatment with a concomitant 45% increase (p < .01) in cytotoxicity. There were no adverse effects noted with DHEA administration.

Conclusion: Administration of oral DHEA at a daily dose of 50 mg to age-advanced men with low serum DHEAS levels significantly activated immune function. The mechanism(s) to account for the immunoenhancing properties of DHEA are unclear. Consideration is given to the potential role of an increase in bioavailable IGF-I, which by virtue of its mitogenic effects on immune cell function, may mediate the DHEA effects. While extended studies are required, our findings suggest potential therapeutic benefits of DHEA in immunodeficient states.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Dehydroepiandrosterone / pharmacology*
  • Hormones / blood
  • Humans
  • Immune System / drug effects*
  • Lymphocyte Subsets / drug effects
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Sex Characteristics*
  • Single-Blind Method


  • Hormones
  • Dehydroepiandrosterone