Are zinc-bound metallothionein isoforms (I+II and III) involved in impaired thymulin production and thymic involution during ageing?

Eugenio Mocchegiani, Robertina Giacconi, Catia Cipriano, Elisa Muti, Nazzarena Gasparini, Marco Malavolta

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Background: With advancing age, thymic efficiency shows progressive decline due to thymic involution allowing impaired cell-mediated immunity and the appearance of age-related diseases. The intrinsic cause of thymic involution is still undefined. Chronic inflammation and high glucocorticoids (GCs) may be involved. However, transgenic mice, with increased GC sensitivity and over expression of GC receptors, display delayed age-associated thymic involution. This fact suggests that other substances may affect thymic involution. Among them, both isoforms of metallothioneins (MTs) I+II and III are the major candidates because their increments leads to organ atrophy in constant stress and are induced by IL-6, which increases in ageing. Enhanced MTs in ageing allows constant sequester of zinc ions and no subsequent zinc release leading to low zinc ion bioavailability for thymic efficiency. This sequester is very limited in very old age. Thus, we have investigated the MTmRNA (I+II and III) in the thymus from young, old and very old mice. Methods: MTmRNA and IL-6mRNA (RT-PCR) in the thymus from different donors were tested. Concomitantly, TECs proliferation, zinc ion bioavailability (ratio total thymulin/active thymulin), thymulin activity and corticosterone were tested from different donors. Results: Both isoforms of MTmRNA and IL-6mRNA increase in old thymus coupled with low zinc ion bioavailability, reduced TECs proliferation, impaired thymulin activity and enhanced plasma corticosterone in comparison with young. Conversely, although the thymus is involuted in very old mice because of no changes in thymus weight in comparison to old mice, reduced MTmRNA, especially MT-I+II isoforms, and low IL6mRNA occur. Concomitantly, good zinc ion bioavailability, maintained TECs proliferation, satisfactory thymulin activity and reduced corticosterone are observed in very old mice. Conclusions: The concomitant increments by high IL-6 of both MT isoforms in the thymus from old mice may be involved in thymic involution because provoking low zinc ion bioavailability, which is relevant for thymic efficiency. By contrast, the limited increments of MTs by low IL-6 induce good zinc ion bioavailability and satisfactory thymic efficiency in very old mice. Therefore, abnormal increased MTs may provoke complete thymic involution during ageing and the possible appearance of age-related diseases. If their increments are instead limited by low inflammation, healthy ageing and longevity may be reached.

Original languageEnglish
Article number5
JournalImmunity and Ageing
Publication statusPublished - Nov 12 2004


  • Ageing
  • Glucocorticoids
  • IL-6
  • Inflammation
  • Longevity
  • Metallothioneins
  • TECs
  • Thymic involution
  • Zinc

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ageing
  • Immunology


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