The pituitary-thymic axis constitutes a bidirectional circuit where the ascending feedback loop is effected by thymic factors of epithelial origin. The aim of the present article is to review the evidence demonstrating that aging brings about a progressive disruption in the integration of this network. In doing so, we briefly review the experimental evidence supporting the view that immune and neuroendocrine aging are interdependent processes. The advantages and limits of the nude mouse as a model of thymus-dependent accelerated aging is also discussed. Next, we review a number of studies which show that the endocrine thymus produces several bioactive molecules, generally called thymic hormones, which in addition to possessing immunoregulatory properties are also active on nervous and endocrine circuits. In particular, the reported activities of thymosin fraction 5 (TF5), thymosin α-1 and thymosin β-4 on β-endorphin, ACTH, glucocorticoids, LHRH and LH secretion in different animal and cell models are reviewed. The known hypophysiotropic actions of other thymic hormones like thymulin, homeostatic thymus hormone (HTH) and thymus factor are summarized. Aging has a significant impact on pituitary responsiveness to thymic hormones. Thus, it has been reported that TF5 and HTH have thyrotropin-inhibiting activity in young but not in old rats. Furthermore, intravenous administration of HTH was also able to reduce plasma GH and increase corticosterone levels in both young and old rats, although these responses were much weaker in the old animals. Further evidence on this topic is discussed. It is proposed that in addition to its central role in the regulation of the immune function, the thymus gland may extend its influence to nonimmunologic components of the body, including the neuroendocrine system. The early onset of thymus involution might therefore act as a triggering event which would initiate the gradual decline in homeostatic potential that characterizes the aging process.

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