There is some evidence that chronic activation of T cells, leading to increased proliferation and telomere shortening, may be involved in other age-related diseases as well. The etiology of Alzheimer's disease (AD) is not known, but our recent studies suggest a possible involvement of T cells. We observed that the telomere length of T cells, but not of B cells or monocytes, correlates with mental function tests in AD patients (Panossian et al., 2002). Those patients with lower Mini Mental Status Examination (MMSE) scores, which is a marker of disease status, had T cells with shorter telomeres than those persons with higher MMSE scores. These findings suggest that the immune system of AD patients is perturbed in some way and may not necessarily respond normally to therapeutic vaccines aimed at retarding AD disease progression. Interestingly, one such therapeutic vaccine trial was recently interrupted due to unanticipated brain inflammation in some participants (Nicoll et al., 2003).
A second age-related pathology in which chronically-activated T cells may play a role is atherosclerosis. Immune involvement in cardiovascular disease (CVD) is suggested by both epidemiological data and experimental animal models. T cells are present in atherosclerotic lesions (Libby et al., 1995), and interaction of CD40 on T cells with vascular endothelial cells, smooth muscle cells, and macrophages has been documented (Mach et al., 1997).
Importantly, several types of infections have been hypothesized to increase the risk of CVD by causing systemic inflammation, or by triggering autoimmunity, for example, by cross-reactivity of heat shock proteins (hsp) with bacterial antigens (Mayr et al., 1999). Indeed, clinically healthy volunteers with sonographically documented carotid artery atherosclerosis have significantly increased antibody titers to hsp 65 compared to controls with no lesions, and in follow-up studies, those with highest titers showed highest mortality. The blocking of the hsp65 effect by T cell immunosuppressive agents further implicates specific immunity in the pathogenesis of atherosclerosis. Most recently, there was a report showing expanded populations of senescent CD8+ T cells in patients with coronary artery disease as compared to controls, further underscoring the potential involvement of chronic antigen-driven proliferation in atherosclerosis (Jonasson et al., 2003).
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