• Thymocyte selection;
  • apoptosis;
  • macrophages;
  • B lymphocytes

The mouse thymus changes dramatically during pregnancy. It shrinks in size, and the cortex is extensively reduced from midpregnancy onwards. Despite this, there is surprisingly little evidence for any increase in apoptosis, and considerable evidence that mitosis of thymocytes continues throughout pregnancy. In spite of overall involution the thymic medulla actually expands in midpregnancy due to a combination of mitosis of epithelial cells and an accumulation of lymphocytes. The extent and nature of these changes are examined in this study at the ultrastructural level. The epithelial cells of the subcapsular cortex (type 1 cells) become wrinkled and exhibit powers of phagocytosis, whilst the other cortical epithelial cells are relatively unchanged, although the formation of epithelial/thymocyte rosettes and thymic nurse cells is more clearly seen in midpregnancy than usual. Other changes associated with pregnancy involve the medullary epithelial cells that undergo an increased level of mitosis. Their greater numbers surround accumulations of lymphocytes to form the characteristic medullary epithelial rings. Cell movement through blood vessel walls was clearly observed in midpregnancy, but not at other times. Interdigitating cells in the medulla become more conspicuous as pregnancy proceeds and the cells become phagocytic. The endoplasmic reticulum in plasma cells becomes expanded, indicating increased secretory activity. These results highlight the active nature of the thymus in pregnancy in spite of its involution. This picture contradicts the conventional notion that an involuted thymus is inactive.