Several lines of indirect evidence suggest that the number and/or affinity of IL-2R expressed by activated T lymphocytes declines with age and that this decline is implicated in the age-related proliferative impairment of Ag or mitogen-stimulated T cells. In an attempt to provide a direct demonstration of such a defect, various experimental approaches were used to analyze the expression of high and low affinity IL-2R as well as their functional properties in relation to age in purified populations of murine T lymphocytes. IL-2R were induced by Con A-activation which involves a transmembrane signaling mechanism or by exposure to phorbol dibutyrate (PDBu) which bypasses such a pathway. Consistent with the previously reported age-related defect in signal transduction, a major deficiency in the expression of high affinity IL-2R was observed in mitogen-activated cells derived from aged animals. As expected, PDBu-induction circumvented the transmembrane signaling defect and resulted in the restoration of a measurable amount of high affinity IL-2R expressed by cells from aged mice early after activation. The functional properties of the IL-2R expressed as a consequence of Con A or PDBu induction were investigated by assessing the proliferative response induced through the high affinity IL-2R as compared to that mediated by the beta-chain alone. Although Con A-induction resulted in a decreased expression of high affinity IL-2R by T lymphocytes derived from aged mice, the ability of these receptors as well as that of their beta-chain component to transmit a proliferative signal was identical in both age groups. In contrast, PDBu induced in both cell populations the expression of functionally aberrant IL-2R, unable to signal for proliferation unless excessively high concentrations of rIL-2 were available. The quantitative minimal estimate of the frequency of Con A-activated, IL-2-responsive cells showed a fourfold age-associated decrease, confirming the inability of a subpopulation of T lymphocytes from aged mice to express a sufficient density of high affinity IL-2R as a consequence of mitogenic activation.

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