The immune system of aged individuals often produces antibodies that have lower affinity and are less protective than antibodies from young individuals. Recent studies in mice suggested that antibodies produced by old individuals may be encoded by distinct immunoglobulin (Ig) genes and that the somatic hypermutation process in these individuals is compromised. The present study employed Ighb scid mice reconstituted with normal lymphocytes from young (2-3-mo-old) and aged (20-25-mo-old) donors and immunized with a protein conjugate of the hapten (4-hydroxy-3-nitrophenyl)acetyl (NP) to determine whether the molecular changes in antibody repertoire reflect senescence in the B cells or whether they are mediated by the aging helper T lymphocytes. The NP-reactive B cells from splenic germinal centers (GC) were recovered by microdissection of frozen tissue sections and their rearranged Ig heavy chain variable region (VH) genes of the V186.2/V3 families were sequenced. It was found that the VH gene repertoire of the GC B cells was strongly influenced by the source of the CD4+ T cells. When T cells were donated by young mice, the anti-NP response in GC was dominated by the canonical V186.2 gene, even if the responder B cells came from aged donors. However, when the mice were reconstituted with T cells from aged donors, the expression of the V186.2 gene by young B cells was diminished and the response was dominated by the C1H4 gene, another member of the V186.2/V3 family. In contrast, the somatic hypermutation process in the GC B cells followed a different pattern. The mutation frequencies in the animals that were reconstituted with both B and T cells from young donors (1/50 to 1/150 bp) were comparable to the frequencies previously reported for NP-immunized intact young/adult mice. However, when either lymphocyte subset was donated by the aged mice, the mutation frequencies declined. Thus, mice reconstituted with T cells from the aged and B cells from the young had severely compromised mutational mechanism. Likewise, the recipients of aged B and young T cells had diminished mutations even though the repertoire of their anti-NP response was dominated by the canonical V186.2 gene. It appears that the change in germine-encoded repertoire and the decrease of somatic hypermutation represent distinct mechanisms of immunosenescence and that the aging of helper T cells plays a pivotal role in both of these processes.

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