The human thymus. A chimeric organ comprised of central and peripheral lymphoid components.
The human thymus is a lymphoepithelial organ in which T cells develop during fetal life. After maturation and selection in the fetal thymic microenvironment, T cells emigrate to peripheral lymphoid tissues such as the spleen, gut, and lymph nodes, and establish the peripheral T cell repertoire. Although the thymus has enormous regenerative capacity during fetal development, the regenerative capacity of the human postnatal thymus decreases over time. With the advent of intensive chemotherapy regimens for a variety of cancer syndromes, and the discovery that infection with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) leads to severe loss of CD4+ T cells, has come the need to understand the role of the human thymus in reconstitution of the immune system in adults. During a recent study of the thymus in HIV infection, we observed many CD8+ T cells in AIDS thymuses that had markers consistent with those of mature effector cytotoxic T cells usually found in peripheral immune tissues, and noted these CD8+ effector T cells were predominately located in a thymic zone termed the thymic perivascular space. This article reviews our own work on the thymus in HIV-1 infection, and discusses the work of others that, taken together, suggest that the thymus contains peripheral immune cell components not only in the setting of HIV infection, but also in myasthenia gravis, as well as throughout normal life during the process of thymus involution. Thus, the human thymus can be thought of as a chimeric organ comprised of both central and peripheral lymphoid tissues. These observations have led us to postulate that the thymic epithelial atrophy and decrease in thymopoiesis that occurs in myasthenia gravis, HIV-1 infection, and thymic involution may in part derive from cytokines or other factors produced by peripheral immune cells within the thymic perivascular space.
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