In order to verify the existence of a blood-thymus barrier to circulating macromolecules, the permeability of the vessels of the thymus was analyzed in young adult mice using electron opaque tracers of different molecular dimensions (horseradish peroxidase, cytochrome c, catalase, ferritin, colloidal lanthanum). Results show that although blood-borne macromolecules do penetrate the thymus, their parenchyma] distribution is limited to the medulla of the lobe by several factors: (a) the differential permeability of the various segments of the vascular tree; (b) the spatial segregation of these segments within the lobe; (c) the strategic location of parenchymal macrophages along the vessels.
The cortex is exclusively supplied by capillaries, which have impermeable endothelial junctions. Although a small amount of tracer is transported by plasmalemmal vesicles through the capillary endothelium, this tracer is promptly sequestrated by macrophages stretched out in a continuous row along the cortical capillaries and it does not reach the intercellular clefts between cortical lymphocytes and reticular cells.
The medulla contains all the leaky vessels, namely postcapillary venules and arterioles. Across the walls of the venules, large quantities of all injected tracers escape through the clefts between migrating lymphocytes and endothelial cells; also the arterioles have a small number of endothelial junctions which are permeable to peroxidase, but do not allow passage of tracers of higher molecular weight. The tracers released by the leaky vessels penetrate the intercellular clefts of the medulla, but they never reach the cortical parenchyma, even at long time intervals after the injection.
Therefore, a blood-thymus barrier to circulating macromolecules does exist, but is limited to the cortex. Medullary lymphocytes are freely exposed to blood-borne substances.