The human thymus is a complex chimeric organ comprised of central (thymic epithelial space) and peripheral (perivascular space) components that functions well into adult life to produce naive T lymphocytes. Recent advances in identifying thymic emigrants and development of safe methods to study thymic function in vivo in adults have provided new opportunities to understand the role that the human thymus plays in immune reconstitution in aging, in bone marrow transplantation, and in HIV-1 infection. The emerging concept is that there are age-dependent contributions of thymic emigrants and proliferation of postthymic T cells to maintain the peripheral T cell pool and to contribute to T cell regeneration, with the thymus contributing more at younger ages and peripheral T cell expansion contributing more in older subjects. New studies have revealed a dynamic interplay between postnatal thymus output and peripheral T cell pool proliferation, which play important roles in determining the nature of immune reconstitution in congenital immunodeficiency diseases, in bone marrow transplantation, and in HIV-1 infection. In this paper, we review recent data on human postnatal thymus function that, taken together, support the notion that the human thymus is functional well into the sixth decade and plays a role throughout life to optimize human immune system function.


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  • Article Type: Review Article
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