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      Immunoneuroendocrine Connectivity: The Paradigm of the Thymus-Hypothalamus/Pituitary Axis


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          It is now largely established that the immune and neuroendocrine systems cross-talk by using similar ligands and receptors. In this context, the thymus-hypothalamus/pituitary axis can be regarded as a paradigm of connectivity in both normal and pathological conditions. For example, cytokines and thymic hormones modulate hypothalamic-pituitary functions: (a) interleukin (IL)-1 seems to upregulate the production of corticotropin-releasing factor and by adrenocorticotropin by hypothalamic neurons and pituitary cells, respectively; (b) thymulin enhances LH secretion. Conversely, a great deal of data strongly indicate that the hypothalamic-pituitary axis plays a role in the control of thymus physiology. Growth hormone (GH) for example, enhances thymulin secretion by thymic epithelial cells (TEC), both in vivo and in vitro, also increasing extracellular matrix-mediated TEC/thymocyte interactions. Additionally, gap junction-mediated cell coupling among TEC is upregulated by ACTH. In a second vein, it was shown that GH injections in aging mice increased total thymocyte numbers and the percentage of CD3-bearing cells, as well concanavalin-A mitogenic response and IL-6 production. In addition to mutual effects, thymus-pituitary similarities for cytokine and hormone production have been demonstrated. Cytokines such as IL-1, IL-2, IL-6, interferon-γ, transforming growth factor-β and others can be produced by hypothalamic and/or pituitary cells. Conversely, hormones including GH, PRL, LH, oxytocin, vasopressin and somatostatin can be produced intrathymically. Moreover, receptors for various cytokines and hormones are expressed in both the thymus and the hypothalamus/pituitary axis. Lastly, it is noteworthy that a thymus-pituitary connectivity can also be seen under pathological situations. In this regard, an altered HPA axis has been reported in AIDS, human falciparum malaria and murine rabies, that also show a severe thymic atrophy.

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          The syntax of immune-neuroendocrine communication.

          There is now overwhelming evidence that cytokines, peptide hormones and neurotransmitters, as well as their receptors, are endogenous to the brain, endocrine and immune systems. Here, Edwin Blalock discusses how these shared ligands and receptors are used as a common chemical language for communication within and between the immune and neuroendocrine systems. Such communication suggests an immunoregulatory role for the brain and a sensory function for the immune system. A clearer understanding of this circuitry is dramatically altering our understanding of physiology and may profoundly affect the treatment of human disease.
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            Thymus-derived Glucocorticoids Regulate Antigen-specific Positive Selection

            While it is generally believed that the avidity of the T cell antigen receptor (TCR) for self antigen/major histocompatibility complex (MHC) determines a thymocyte's fate, how the cell discriminates between a stimulus that causes positive selection (survival) and one that causes negative selection (death) is unknown. We have previously demonstrated that glucocorticoids are produced in the thymus, and that they antagonize deletion caused by TCR cross-linking. To examine the role of glucocorticoids during MHC-dependent selection, we examined thymocyte development in organ cultures in which corticosteroid biosynthesis was inhibited. Inhibition of glucocorticoid production in thymi from α/β-TCR transgenic mice resulted in the antigen- and MHC-specific loss of thymocytes that normally recognize self antigen/MHC with sufficient avidity to result in positive selection. Furthermore, inhibition of glucocorticoid production caused an increase in apoptosis only in CD+CD8+ thymocytes bearing transgenic TCRs that recognized self antigen/MHC. These results indicate that the balance of TCR and glucocorticoid receptor signaling influences the antigen-specific thymocyte development by allowing cells with low-to-moderate avidity for self antigen/MHC to survive.
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              Cytokines and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.

              After administration of the cytokines interleukin 1 (IL1), tumor necrosis factor (TNF), interleukin 2 and interleukin 6 to laboratory animals or humans, plasma levels of glucocorticoids are elevated. This effect is mediated by activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary unit. IL1 and TNF inhibit aldosterone production by rat adrenocortical cells in vitro and stimulate renin release by rat renal cortical cells. Administration of IL1 or TNF in rats suppresses hypothalamic-pituitary-thyroid function, whereas IL1 acts at the level of the brain and the gonads to interfere with gonadotropin and sex steroid secretion. During stimulation of the immune system (e.g. during infectious diseases), peculiar alterations in hormone secretion occur (hypercortisolism, hyperreninemic hypoaldosteronism, euthyroid sick syndrome, hypogonadism). The role of cytokines in these alterations remains to be established.

                Author and article information

                S. Karger AG
                April 1999
                08 January 1999
                : 6
                : 1-2
                : 126-136
                aLaboratory on Thymus Research, Department of Immunology, Institute Oswaldo Cruz, Foundation Oswaldo Cruz, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; bLaboratory of Physiology and Molecular Biology, Department of Biology, University of Buenos Aires and CONICET, Buenos Aires, Argentina, and cHôpital Necker, CNRS-URA 1461, Paris, France
                26372 Neuroimmunomodulation 1999;6:126–136
                © 1999 S. Karger AG, Basel

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                Page count
                Figures: 1, Tables: 2, References: 151, Pages: 11

                Endocrinology & Diabetes,Neurology,Nutrition & Dietetics,Sexual medicine,Internal medicine,Pharmacology & Pharmaceutical medicine
                Thymic epithelial cells,Thymus,Pituitary gland,Cytokines,Thymocytes,Hypothalamus


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