Skip to main content
Biology LibreTexts

18.2: Lymphoid Organs

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    The thymus gland is a bilobed organ found in the space between the sternum and the aorta of the heart (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)). Connective tissue holds the lobes closely together but also separates them and forms a capsule. The connective tissue capsule further divides the thymus into lobules via extensions called trabeculae. The outer region of the organ is known as the cortex and contains large numbers of thymocytes with some epithelial cells, macrophages, and dendritic cells (two types of phagocytic cells that are derived from monocytes). The cortex is densely packed so it stains more intensely than the rest of the thymus (see Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)). The medulla, where thymocytes migrate before leaving the thymus, contains a less dense collection of thymocytes, epithelial cells, and dendritic cells.

    The left panel of this figure shows the head and chest of a woman and the location of the thymus is marked. The top right panel shows a micrograph of the thymus and the bottom right panel shows a magnified view of the structure of the thymus.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Location, Structure, and Histology of the Thymus The thymus lies above the heart. The trabeculae and lobules, including the darkly staining cortex and the lighter staining medulla of each lobule, are clearly visible in the light micrograph of the thymus of a newborn. LM × 100. (Micrograph provided by the Regents of the University of Michigan Medical School © 2012) (CC-BY-4.0, OpenStax, Human Anatomy)


    Lymph Nodes

    Lymph nodes function to remove debris and pathogens from the lymph, and are thus sometimes referred to as the “filters of the lymph” (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)). Any bacteria that infect the interstitial fluid are taken up by the lymphatic capillaries and transported to a regional lymph node. Dendritic cells and macrophages within this organ internalize and kill many of the pathogens that pass through, thereby removing them from the body. The lymph node is also the site of adaptive immune responses mediated by T cells, B cells, and accessory cells of the adaptive immune system. Like the thymus, the bean- shaped lymph nodes are surrounded by a tough capsule of connective tissue and are separated into compartments by trabeculae, the extensions of the capsule. In addition to the structure provided by the capsule and trabeculae, the structural support of the lymph node is provided by a series of reticular fibers laid down by fibroblasts.

    The major routes into the lymph node are via afferent lymphatic vessels (see Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)). Cells and lymph fluid that leave the lymph node may do so by another set of vessels known as the efferent lymphatic vessels. Lymph enters the lymph node via the subcapsular sinus, which is occupied by dendritic cells, macrophages, and reticular fibers. Within the cortex of the lymph node are lymphoid follicles, which consist of germinal centers of rapidly dividing B cells surrounded by a layer of T cells and other accessory cells. As the lymph continues to flow through the node, it enters the medulla, which consists of medullary cords of B cells and plasma cells, and the medullary sinuses where the lymph collects before leaving the node via the efferent lymphatic vessels.

    The left panel of this figure shows a micrograph of the cross section of a lymph node. The right panel shows the structure of a lymph node.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Structure and Histology of a Lymph Node Lymph nodes are masses of lymphatic tissue located along the larger lymph vessels. The micrograph of the lymph nodes shows a germinal center, which consists of rapidly dividing B cells surrounded by a layer of T cells and other accessory cells. LM × 128. (Micrograph provided by the Regents of the University of Michigan Medical School © 2012) (CC-BY-4.0, OpenStax, Human Anatomy)



    In addition to the lymph nodes, the spleen is a major secondary lymphoid organ (Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\)). It is about 12 cm (5 in) long and is attached to the lateral border of the stomach via the gastrosplenic ligament. The spleen is a fragile organ without a strong capsule, and is dark red due to its extensive vascularization.

    The spleen is sometimes called the “filter of the blood” because of its extensive vascularization and the presence of macrophages and dendritic cells that remove microbes and other materials from the blood, including dying red blood cells. The spleen also functions as the location of immune responses to blood- borne pathogens.

    The spleen is also divided by trabeculae of connective tissue, and within each splenic nodule is an area of red pulp, consisting of mostly red blood cells, and white pulp, which resembles the lymphoid follicles of the lymph nodes. Upon entering the spleen, the splenic artery splits into several arterioles (surrounded by white pulp) and eventually into sinusoids. Blood from the capillaries subsequently collects in the venous sinuses and leaves via the splenic vein. The red pulp consists of reticular fibers with fixed macrophages attached, free macrophages, and all of the other cells typical of the blood, including some lymphocytes.

    The white pulp surrounds a central arteriole and consists of germinal centers of dividing B cells surrounded by T cells and accessory cells, including macrophages and dendritic cells. Thus, the red pulp primarily functions as a filtration system of the blood, using cells of the relatively nonspecific immune response, and white pulp is where adaptive T and B cell responses are mounted.

    The top left panel shows the location of the spleen in the human body. The top center panel shows a close up view of the location of the spleen. The top right panel shows the blood vessels and spleen tissue. The bottom panel shows a histological micrograph.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Spleen (a) The spleen is attached to the stomach. (b) A micrograph of spleen tissue shows the germinal center. The marginal zone is the region between the red pulp and white pulp, which sequesters particulate antigens from the circulation and presents these antigens to lymphocytes in the white pulp. EM × 660. (Micrograph provided by the Regents of the University of Michigan Medical School © 2012) (CC-BY-4.0, OpenStax, Human Anatomy)



    Lymphoid Nodules

    Tonsils are lymphoid nodules located along the inner surface of the pharynx and are important in developing immunity to oral pathogens (Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\)). The tonsil located at the back of the throat, the pharyngeal tonsil, is sometimes referred to as the adenoid when swollen. Such swelling is an indication of an active immune response to infection. Histologically, tonsils do not contain a complete capsule, and the epithelial layer invaginates deeply into the interior of the tonsil to form tonsillar crypts. These structures, which accumulate all sorts of materials taken into the body through eating and breathing, actually “encourage” pathogens to penetrate deep into the tonsillar tissues where they are acted upon by numerous lymphoid follicles and eliminated. This seems to be the major function of tonsils—to help children’s bodies recognize, destroy, and develop immunity to common environmental pathogens so that they will be protected in their later lives. Tonsils are often removed in those children who have recurring throat infections, especially those involving the palatine tonsils on either side of the throat, whose swelling may interfere with their breathing and/or swallowing.

    The top panel of this image shows the location of the tonsils. All the major parts are labeled. The bottom panel shows the histological micrograph of the tonsils.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Locations and Histology of the Tonsils (a) The pharyngeal tonsil is located on the roof of the posterior superior wall of the nasopharynx. The palatine tonsils lay on each side of the pharynx. (b) A micrograph shows the palatine tonsil tissue. LM × 40. (Micrograph provided by the Regents of the University of Michigan Medical School © 2012) (CC-BY-4.0, OpenStax, Human Anatomy)


    This page titled 18.2: Lymphoid Organs is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by OpenStax.

    • Was this article helpful?