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J Immunol. 2006 Jun 15;176(12):7371-8.

Estrogen induces thymic atrophy by eliminating early thymic progenitors and inhibiting proliferation of beta-selected thymocytes.

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  • 1Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, GA 30322, USA,


Although it has been established that high levels of estrogen can induce thymic involution, the mechanism by which this happens is not known. We have found that daily i.p. injections of the synthetic estrogen 17-beta-estradiol reduce thymus cellularity by 80% over a period of 4-6 days. Although the atrophy is most strikingly observed in the CD4/CD8 double-positive (DP) thymic subset, the loss of thymocytes is not accompanied by a significant increase in thymocyte apoptosis, suggesting that direct killing of cells may not be the dominant means by which estrogens induce thymic atrophy. Instead, we find that estradiol drastically reduces the lineage-negative, Flt3(+)Sca-1(+)c-Kit(+) population in the bone marrow, a population that contains thymic homing progenitors. Within the thymus, we observe that estradiol treatment results in a preferential depletion of early thymic progenitors. In addition, we find that estradiol leads to a significant reduction in the proliferation of thymocytes responding to pre-TCR signals. Reduced proliferation of DN3 and DN4 cell subsets is likely the major contributor to the reduction in DP thymocytes that is observed. The reduction in early thymic progenitors is also likely to contribute to thymic atrophy, as we show that estradiol treatment can reduce the size of Rag1-deficient thymuses, which lack pre-TCR signals and DP thymocytes.

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