The Histology Guide

Lymphoid tissue: T-lymphocytes and the Thymus

The thymus is a primary lymphoid organ found within the superior mediatinum, behind the upper part of the sternum.

This organ is active in children, but at the start of puberty, until old age, it starts to atrophy, producing fewer T-cells. The thymus also produces thymic hormones that support the growth and differentiation of T-cell progenitors.

It has two lobes divided up into many lobules. The outer, more darkly staining region is the cortex, and this is highly cellular. The inner lighter staining region is the medullar, and this region is less cellular. It has an outer connective tissue capsule and septa.

This organ is important for development of immunocompetent T-cells, proliferation of clones of of mature T-cells, developing immunological self-tolerance, and secretion of hormones for T-cell development. At least three hormones are made: thymosin, thymulin and thymopoietin. These hormones are produced by reticular epithelial cells in the cortex.

photo of thymus

The cortex stains more darkly (is more basophilic) than the medulla, because it contains more lymphocytes than the medulla.

The epithelial network in the cortex is more finely branched than in the medulla - and this gives this network the name 'reticular'.

The epithelial cells are connected to each other by desmosomes, and the intermediate filament protein keratin is present in their cytoplasm.

This photograph shows a low power image of the thymus, showing the more darkly staining cortex, and paler staining medulla. You can also see the outer capsula, and the lobules.

At this magnification, you can't see individual lymphocytes, but you can see Hassal's corpuscles in the medulla. These are made up of flat non-secreting epithelial cells arranged in a concentric layers that have keratinised. These structures are only found in the thymus.


This photograph shows part of the cortex and medulla at a higher magnification.

questionCan you identify these two regions and the Hassal's corpuscle?

This photo, shows part of the thymus at higher magnification. It contains dividing cells (mitotic figures). Can you identify one?

The immature lymphocytes only differentiate in the cortex.

The T-cell progenitors proliferate in the outer cortex.

However, only 5% of the T-cells formed survive. The survivors are the ones that can recognize self-MHC encoded surface glycoproteins, i.e will be immunotolerant to antigen presenting cells from the same person.

Differentiating T-cells accumulate between epithelial reticular cells. They can then pass into the venules and efferent lymphatics along the border between the cortex and the medulla. Or they pass into the medulla, where they are further selected by thymic dendritic cells and matured before passing out of the medullary venules and efferent lymphatics.

Blood from the inferior thyroid, and internal thoracic arteries enters the thymus. The epithelial cells form a sheath around the capillaries, to form a barrier to the entry of antigenic material into the spaces between the epithelial cells in the reticular network. This is known as the blood thymus barrier.

Further, the thymus only has efferent lymphatics, not afferent lymphatics, to transport lymph and lymphocytes away from this organ.

The numerous darkly staining cells in this photo are the lymphocytes. questionCan you identify them, and the capillaries?

EM of lymphocytes in thymus

This is an electron micrograph of a reticular epithelial cell and surrounding lymphocytes.

The vast number of lymphocytes present make it difficult to see the epithelial cells that both support them and may play a role in their maturation. However, this electron micrograph shows the close relationship between the central epithelial cell and the lymphocytes surrounding it.

Hassal’s corpuscles are thought to be degenerate epithelial cells. They are made up of concentric layers of flattened reticular epithelial cells filled with keratohyalin granules and keratin.