The thymus exhibits a pattern of aging oriented toward a physiological involution. The structural changes start with a steady decrease of thymocytes, whereas no major variations occur in the number of thymic epithelial cells (TEC). The data concerning the role of hormones and neuropeptides in thymic involution are equivocal. We recently demonstrated the presence of somatostatin (SS) and three different SS receptor (SSR) subtypes in the human thymus. TEC selectively expressed SSR subtype 1 (sst(1)) and sst(2A). In the present study we investigated whether SSR number is age related in the thymus. Binding of the sst(2)-preferring ligand (125)I-Tyr(3)-octreotide was evaluated in a large series of normal human thymuses of different age by SSR autoradiography and ligand binding on tissue homogenates. The score at autoradiography and the number of SSR at membrane homogenate binding (B(max)) were inversely correlated with the thymus age (r = -0.84, P < 0.001; r = -0.82, P < 0.001, respectively). The autoradiographic score was positively correlated with the B(max) values (r = 0.74, P < 0.001). Because the TEC number in the age range considered remains unchanged, the decrease of octreotide binding sites might be due to a reduction of sst(2A) receptor number on TEC. The age-related expression of a receptor involved mainly in controlling secretive processes is in line with the evidence that the major changes occurring in TEC with aging are related to their capabilities in producing thymic hormones. In conclusion, SS and SSR might play a role in the involution of the human thymus. These findings underline the links between the neuroendocrine and immune systems and support the concept that neuropeptides participate in development of cellular immunity in humans.

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American Journal of Physiology: Endocrinology and Metabolism
Erasmus MC: University Medical Center Rotterdam

Ferone, D., Pivonello, R., van Hagen, M., Waaijers, M., Zuijderwijk, J., Colao, A., … Hofland, L. (2000). Age-related decrease of somatostatin receptor number in the normal human thymus. American Journal of Physiology: Endocrinology and Metabolism. Retrieved from