The thymus is a gland located in the upper part of the chest. It has been long known that this small organ is important for immune defence development in children.
After puberty, the thymus decreases in size and is eventually replaced by fat, in a process known as fatty degeneration.
This has been taken to mean that it loses its function, which is why the thymus has for a long time been considered as being not important in adult life.
This view has however been challenged in some minor research studies that indicate that having an active thymus as an adult may be an advantage and could provide increased resilience against infectious disease and cancer.
Only very few studies so far have examined the thymus in adults.
In the latest study, published in Immunity & Ageing, the researchers examined the thymus’ appearance in chest CT scans of more than 1,000 Swedish individuals aged 50 to 64.
They were participating in the large SCAPIS study, which includes both extensive imaging and comprehensive health assessments including lifestyle factors, such as dietary habits and physical activity.
In their sub-study of SCAPIS, the researchers also analysed immune cells in the blood.
“We saw a huge variation in thymus appearance,” Sandstedt said.
“Six out of ten participants had complete fatty degeneration of thymus, which was much more common in men than in women, and in people with abdominal obesity.
“Lifestyle also mattered. Low intake of fibres in particular was associated with fatty degeneration of thymus.”
The Linköping researchers’ study provides new knowledge by associating thymus appearance with lifestyle and health factors, and the immune system.
In the development of the immune system, the thymus acts like a school for a type of immune cells known as T-cells.
This is where the T-cells learn to recognise bacteria, viruses and other things that are alien to the body.
They also learn to be tolerant and not attack anything that is part of the person’s own body, which could otherwise lead to various autoimmune diseases.
Researchers saw that individuals with fatty degeneration of the thymus showed lower T-cell regeneration.
“This association with T-cell regeneration is interesting. It indicates that what we see in CT scans is not only an image, it actually also reflects the functionality of the thymus,” said researcher Lena Jonasson.
“You can’t do anything about your age and your sex, but lifestyle-related factors can be influenced. It might be possible to influence immune system ageing.”
But more research is needed before it will be possible to know whether thymus appearance, and thereby immune defence ageing, will have any implications for general health.
The researchers are now moving on to follow-up studies of the thymus of all 5,000 participants in SCAPIS Linköping to see whether CT scan thymus images can provide information on future risk of disease.