Age-dependent remodeling of rat thymus. Morphological and cytofluorimetric analysis from birth up to one year of age

Daniela Quaglino, Miriam Capri, Giovanna Bergamini, Emanuela Euclidi, Luigi Zecca, Claudio Franceschi, Ivonne Pasquali Ronchetti

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Structural and phenotypic modifications of rat thymocytes from birth up to one year of age, i.e. during maturation and at the beginning of the involutive process of the thymus are described. Since the biological significance and the mechanisms of thymic involution are still a matter of debate, this study aims at clarifying the complexity of the compensatory events occurring during this relatively neglected period of time. Thymuses from Sprague-Dawley rats were analyzed morphologically and morphometrically by light and electron microscopy. At the same time, thymocyte subsets, isolated from the same animals, were characterized by flow cytometry according to physical parameters and phenotypic markers. Results indicate that major changes occur during the first month from birth and from six months onward. In particular, already during the first weeks after birth, thymocytes undergo a slight reduction of mitoses associated with an increased number of apoptoses. Moreover, during the same period of time, flow cytometry revealed an expansion of small thymocytes and changes in thymocyte subsets such as increase of CD4+CD8+ and CD5+αβTCR- and a decrease of CD4-CD8-, CD4-CD8+ cells. The thymus of adult rats was characterized by time dependent decrease of both mitoses and apoptoses, progressive physical disconnection among cells, increase of necrotic areas and fibrosis. Around one year of age tissue changes were associated with a dramatic reduction of the population of large thymocytes and the rise of numerous small thymocytes that were unexpectedly negative for all tested markers. By contrast, medium-size thymocytes exhibited a marked decrease of CD4+CD8+ and CD5+αβTCR- subsets. In conclusion, our data indicate that thymus undergoes, with time, a complex remodeling and suggest that thymic involution is not only a simple shrinkage of the organ but rather the result of a series of compensatory mechanisms among different cell populations in a setting of progressive involution.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)156-166
Number of pages11
JournalEuropean Journal of Cell Biology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1998


  • Cell death
  • FACS
  • Microscopy
  • Thymocytes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anatomy
  • Cell Biology


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