Thymus and aging: morphological, radiological, and functional overview
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Aging is a continuous process that induces many alterations in the cytoarchitecture of different organs and systems both in humans and animals. Moreover, it is associated with increased susceptibility to infectious, autoimmune, and neoplastic processes. The thymus is a primary lymphoid organ responsible for the production of immunocompetent T cells and, with aging, it atrophies and declines in functions. Universality of thymic involution in all species possessing thymus, including human, indicates it as a long-standing evolutionary event. Although it is accepted that many factors contribute to age-associated thymic involution, little is known about the mechanisms involved in the process. The exact time point of the initiation is not well defined. To address the issue, we report the exact age of thymus throughout the review so that readers can have a nicely pictured synoptic view of the process. Focusing our attention on the different stages of the development of the thymus gland (natal, postnatal, adult, and old), we describe chronologically the morphological changes of the gland. We report that the thymic morphology and cell types are evolutionarily preserved in several vertebrate species. This finding is important in understanding the similar problems caused by senescence and other diseases. Another point that we considered very important is to indicate the assessment of the thymus through radiological images to highlight its variability in shape, size, and anatomical conformation.