How Does Stress Affect the Thymus Gland?

Reviewed on 3/21/2022
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Stress can affect the thymus by causing a condition called acute thymic atrophy, which can impact the function of the immune system.

The thymus is a small organ located just behind the breast bone, in the space in the chest between the lungs, in front of and above the heart.

  • The thymus is part of the body’s immune system, but it is only active until puberty. After puberty it decreases in size and is replaced by body fat. Adults essentially live without a functioning thymus gland.  
  • The thymus gland is responsible for immune function. It is primarily involved in the production and maturation of a type of white blood cell called T lymphocytes (T cells). T cells develop in the thymus and travel to lymph nodes where they help the immune system protect the body from foreign invaders such as viruses, bacteria, fungus, and other types of infections.
  • The T lymphocytes produced by the thymus gland also help protect the body from itself by controlling cancerous cells. 

Stress can cause a condition called acute thymic atrophy, which can impact the function of the immune system. Many people with thymus problems have no symptoms. 

Symptoms of thymus problems depend on the cause and may include: 

What Causes Acute Thymic Atrophy?

Causes of acute thymic atrophy include: 

How Is Acute Thymic Atrophy Diagnosed?

Tests that may be performed to diagnose thymus problems include:

What Is the Treatment for Acute Thymic Atrophy?

The goal of treatment for acute thymic atrophy is to boost the immune system. There is no standard treatment for acute thymic atrophy, however, many treatments are being researched such as: 

  • Interleukin-22, a type of cytokine
  • Bone morphogenetic protein 4 (BMP4)
  • Keratinocyte growth factor (KGF, also known as FGF-7), a fibroblast growth factor 
  • Receptor activator of nuclear factor kappa-B ligand (RANKL)
  • Bone marrow hematopoietic progenitors
  • Thymic T cell precursors
  • Sex steroid inhibition (SSI)
  • Ghrelin, an appetite stimulating hormone
  • Oral zinc supplementation 
  • Leptin, a peptide hormone 
  • Hematopoietic precursors
  • Thymic epithelial cells
Reviewed on 3/21/2022
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