A reduced number of naïve T cells along with an accumulation of differentiated cell types in aging have been described but little is known about the polyfunctionality of the T cell responses. In this study we compared the individual and polyfunctional expression of IFN-γ, MIP-1α, TNF-α, perforin, and IL-2 by T cell subsets, including the newly described stem cell like memory T cells (T SCM), in response to stimulation with superantigen staphylococcal enterotoxin B (SEB) in older (median age 80, n = 23) versus younger (median age 27; n = 23) adults.
Older age was associated with a markedly lower frequency of CD8+ naïve T cells (11% vs. 47%; p < 0.0001) and an expansion in memory T cell subsets including central memory (p < 0.05), effector memory and effector T cells (p < 0.001 for both). There was also a decline in CD4+ naïve T cells in older subjects (33% vs. 45%; p = 0.02). There were no differences in frequencies or polyfunctional profiles of T SCM between groups. CD8+ naïve cells in the older group had increased expression of all functional parameters measured compared to the younger subjects and exhibited greater polyfunctionality (p = 0.04). CD4+ naïve T cells in the older group also showed greater polyfunctionality with a TNF-α and IL-2 predominance (p = 0.005). CD8+ effector memory and effector T cells exhibited increased polyfunctionality in the older group compared with younger (p = 0.01 and p = 0.003).