Following the advent of molecular assays that measure T cell receptor excision circles (TRECs) present in recent thymic emigrants, it has been conclusively shown that thymopoiesis persists in most adults, but that functional output decreases with age, influencing the maintenance of a diverse and functional T cell receptor (TCR) repertoire. Space flight has been shown to result in a variety of phenotypic and functional changes in human T cells and in the reactivation of latent viruses. While space flight has been shown to influence thymic architecture in rodents, thymopoiesis has not previously been assessed in astronauts. Here, we assessed thymopoiesis longitudinally over a 1-year period prior to and after long-term space flight (median duration, 184 days) in 16 astronauts. While preflight assessments of thymopoiesis remained quite stable in individual astronauts, we detected significant suppression of thymopoiesis in all subjects upon return from space flight. We also found significant increases in urine and plasma levels of endogenous glucocorticoids coincident with the suppression of thymopoiesis. The glucocorticoid induction and thymopoiesis suppression were transient, and they normalized shortly after return to Earth. This is the first report to our knowledge to prospectively demonstrate a significant change in thymopoiesis in healthy individuals in association with a defined physiologic emotional and physical stress event. These results suggest that suppression of thymopoiesis has the potential to influence the maintenance of the TCR repertoire during extended space travel. Further studies of thymopoiesis and endogenous glucocorticoids in other stress states, including illness, are warranted.
Cara L. Benjamin, Raymond P. Stowe, Lisa St. John, Clarence F. Sams, Satish K. Mehta, Brian E. Crucian, Duane L. Pierson, Krishna V. Komanduri