Recent observations indicate that immunosenescence is not accompanied by an unavoidable and progressive deterioration of the immune function, but is rather the result of a remodeling where some functions are reduced; others remain unchanged or even increased.
In addition, it appears that the ancestral/innate compartment of the immune system is relatively preserved during aging in comparison to the more recent and sophisticated adaptive compartment that exhibit more profound modifications.
The T-cell branch displays an age-dependent decline of the absolute number of total T-cells (CD3+), involving both CD4+ and CD8+ subsets, accompanied by an increase of NK cells with well-preserved cytotoxic function and by a reduction of B-cells.
One of the main characteristics of the immune system during aging is a progressive, age-dependent decline of the virgin T-cells (CD95-), which is particularly profound at the level of the CD8+ subpopulation of the oldest old subjects.
The progressive exhaustion of this important T-cell subpopulation dedicated primarily to the defense against new antigenic challenges (viral, neoplastic, bacterial ones), could be a consequence of both the thymic involution and the lifelong chronic antigenic stimulation.
The immune function of the elderly, is therefore weakened by the exhaustion of CD95- virgin cells that are replaced by large clonal expansions of CD28- T-cells.
The origin of CD28- cells has not been completely clarified yet, but it is assumed that they represent cells in the phase of replicative senescence characterized by shortening telomers and reduced proliferative capacity.
A major characteristic of the immune system during aging is the up-regulation of the inflammatory responses, which appears to be detrimental for longevity.
Scientists have recently observed a progressive age-dependent increase of type 1(IL-2, IFN-gamma, TNF-alpha) and type 2 (IL-4, IL-6, IL-10) positive CD8+ T-cells; in particular, type 1 cytokine-positive cells significantly increased, with age, in all CD8+ subsets particularly among effector/cytotoxic and memory cells.
A major force able to drive a chronic pro-inflammatory state during aging may be represented by persistent viral infections by EBV and CMV.
Therefore, they have determined the frequency and the absolute number of viral antigen-specific CD8+ T-cells in subjects older than 85 years, who were serologically positive for CMV or EBV.
In the majority of these subjects they detected the presence of T lymphocytes positive for epitopes of CMV or EBV.
In all subjects the absolute number of CMV-positive CD8+ cells outnumbered that of EBV-positive ones.
In addition, the majority of CMV+ T cells were included within the CD28- subpopulation, while EBV+ T cells belonged mainly to the CD28+ subset.
These data indicate that the chronic antigenic stimulation induced by persistent viral infections during aging bring about important modifications among CD8+ subsets, which are particularly evident in the presence of CMV persistence.
The age-dependent expansions of CD8+CD28- T-cells, mostly positive for pro-inflammatory cytokines and including the majority of CMV-epitope-specific cells, underlines the importance of chronic antigenic stimulation in the pathogenesis of the main immunological alterations of aging and may favor the appearance of several pathologies (arteriosclerosis, dementia, osteoporosis, cancer) all of which share an inflammatory pathogenesis.
Keywords: T-cells, lymphocytes, immunosenescence.