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Thymic atrophy is a frequent consequence of infection with bacteria, viruses, and parasites and is considered a common virulence trait between pathogens. Multiple reasons have been proposed to explain this atrophy, including premature egress of immature thymocytes, increased apoptosis, or thymic shutdown to prevent tolerance to the pathogen from developing. The severe loss in thymic cell number can reflect an equally dramatic reduction in thymic output, potentially reducing peripheral T cell numbers. In this study, we examine the relationship between systemic Salmonella infection and thymic function. During infection, naive T cell numbers in peripheral lymphoid organs increase. Nevertheless, this occurs despite a pronounced thymic atrophy caused by viable bacteria, with a peak 50-fold reduction in thymocyte numbers. Thymic atrophy is not dependent upon homeostatic feedback from peripheral T cells or on regulation of endogenous glucocorticoids, as demonstrated by infection of genetically altered mice. Once bacterial numbers fall, thymocyte numbers recover, and this is associated with increases in the proportion and proliferation of early thymic progenitors. During atrophy, thymic T cell maturation is maintained, and single-joint TCR rearrangement excision circle analysis reveals there is only a modest fall in recent CD4(+) thymic emigrants in secondary lymphoid tissues. Thus, thymic atrophy does not necessarily result in a matching dysfunctional T cell output, and thymic homeostasis can constantly adjust to systemic infection to ensure that naive T cell output is maintained.

Original publication




Journal article


J Immunol

Publication Date





4266 - 4274


Animals, Atrophy, CD4-Positive T-Lymphocytes, Cell Differentiation, Cell Movement, Mice, Recovery of Function, Salmonella Infections, Salmonella typhimurium, Thymus Gland