The proliferative response of T cells is known to decrease with age of the T cell donor. We now report that this proliferative defect affects both major subsets (CD4+, CD8- and CD4-, CD8+) of peripheral T cells from old humans. Furthermore, this proliferative defect can be detected within the first hours after addition of mitogen by a reduction in the steady state levels of c-myc mRNA in T cell cultures from old donors. Lymphocytes from old humans cultured with PHA have less than 50% of the level of c-myc message than do such cultures from young donors. Nuclear run-on assays suggest that the decreased steady state level of c-myc mRNA in cultures from old donors is caused by reduced transcription of the c-myc gene in T cells from old donors. The age-associated defect in transcription of the c-myc gene affects the second exon to a greater extent than the first, noncoding exon. Individual T lymphocytes from old donors that do express c-myc message, detected by in situ hybridization, have the same intracellular level of c-myc message as T lymphocytes from young donors. These data add additional support for the hypothesis that the proliferative defect of T lymphocytes from old humans is caused by the smaller fraction of T cells from old as compared with young humans that can be activated by mitogens to enter the G1 phase of the cell cycle.

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