Lymphocytes – Definition, Development, Types and Functions

What are Lymphocytes?

Lymphocytes are a specialized type of white blood cell that plays a crucial role in the immune system’s adaptive response. They are the key mediators of both humoral and cellular immunity. Here are some important points about lymphocytes:

  1. Unique Cells of Adaptive Immunity: Lymphocytes are the only cells in the body that express clonally distributed antigen receptors. Each lymphocyte clone expresses antigen receptors with a single specificity, distinct from receptors found in other clones. This clonal distribution allows lymphocytes to specifically recognize and respond to different foreign antigens.
  2. Antigen Receptor Formation: The genes encoding the antigen receptors of lymphocytes are formed through recombination of DNA segments during the maturation process of these cells. This genetic recombination leads to the generation of diverse antigen receptors, enabling lymphocytes to recognize a wide range of antigens.
  3. Types of Lymphocytes: There are three main types of lymphocytes: natural killer (NK) cells, T cells, and B cells. NK cells function in cell-mediated, cytotoxic innate immunity, while T cells and B cells play crucial roles in adaptive immunity. T cells are involved in cell-mediated, cytotoxic adaptive immunity, while B cells are responsible for humoral, antibody-driven adaptive immunity.
  4. Distribution in the Body: Lymphocytes are found throughout the body, with varying proportions in different locations. They represent 20% to 40% of circulating white blood cells and are the predominant cell type in the lymphatic system. Approximately 2% of lymphocytes are present in the blood, 4% in the skin, 10% in the bone marrow, 15% in the mucosal lymphoid tissues of the gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts, and 65% in lymphoid organs such as the spleen and lymph nodes.
  5. Population and Function: The total number of lymphocytes in a healthy adult is approximately 5 × 10^11. Lymphocytes are responsible for recognizing and mounting immune responses against foreign antigens. T cells are involved in cell-mediated immune responses, coordinating immune reactions and killing infected cells. B cells produce antibodies and are crucial for the humoral immune response, targeting extracellular pathogens.
  6. Role in Immune Defense: Lymphocytes are essential for the adaptive immune response, which provides long-term protection against specific pathogens. They play a critical role in immune surveillance, antigen recognition, and the generation of specific immune responses. Lymphocytes coordinate with other immune cells to eliminate pathogens, neutralize toxins, and maintain immune balance.

In summary, lymphocytes are unique cells of the adaptive immune system that recognize and respond to foreign antigens. They include natural killer cells, T cells, and B cells, each with distinct functions in immune defense. Lymphocytes are widely distributed throughout the body and play a vital role in coordinating immune responses and providing long-term immunity.

Reference ranges for blood tests of white blood cells, comparing lymphocyte amount (shown in light blue) with other cells
Reference ranges for blood tests of white blood cells, comparing lymphocyte amount (shown in light blue) with other cells | Image Credit: Mikael Häggström.When using this image in external works, it may be cited as:Häggström, Mikael (2014). “Medical gallery of Mikael Häggström 2014”. WikiJournal of Medicine 1 (2). DOI:10.15347/wjm/2014.008. ISSN 2002-4436. Public Domain.orBy Mikael Häggström, used with permission., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Definition of Lymphocytes

Lymphocytes are specialized white blood cells that are crucial for the adaptive immune response. They include natural killer cells, T cells, and B cells, and they play a central role in recognizing and responding to foreign antigens to protect the body against infections and diseases.

Characteristics of Lymphocytes

Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell that play a vital role in the immune system. Here are some characteristics of lymphocytes:

  1. Microscopic Appearance: When observed under a microscope with Wright’s stain, normal lymphocytes appear as cells with a large, dark-staining nucleus and minimal eosinophilic cytoplasm. The nucleus is typically coarse and dense, approximately the size of a red blood cell (around 7 μm in diameter). Some lymphocytes may exhibit a clear perinuclear zone or a small clear zone to one side of the nucleus.
  2. Polyribosomes: Lymphocytes contain abundant polyribosomes, which can be seen using an electron microscope. These ribosomes are involved in protein synthesis and enable lymphocytes to generate large quantities of cytokines and immunoglobulins, important molecules for immune responses.
  3. Flow Cytometry: It is not possible to distinguish T cells from B cells in a peripheral blood smear. Flow cytometry is commonly used to analyze and count specific lymphocyte populations. This technique allows the identification of lymphocytes based on specific cell surface proteins, such as immunoglobulins or cluster of differentiation (CD) markers. It can also determine the production of specific proteins, like cytokines, using intracellular staining techniques.
  4. Recognition Markers: Lymphocytes can be characterized by various phenotypic markers that indicate their specific functions. Some typical recognition markers include:
  • Natural Killer (NK) Cells: Express CD16 and CD56, involved in lysing virally infected cells and tumor cells.
  • T Helper Cells: Express TCRαβ, CD3, and CD4, responsible for releasing cytokines and growth factors that regulate other immune cells.
  • Cytotoxic T Cells: Express TCRαβ, CD3, and CD8, involved in lysing virally infected cells, tumor cells, and allografts.
  • Gamma Delta (γδ) T Cells: Express TCRγδ and CD3, playing roles in immunoregulation and cytotoxicity.
  • B Cells: Express MHC class II, CD19, and CD20, responsible for antibody secretion.
  1. Circulation and Lymph Node Migration: Lymphocytes constantly move through the circulatory system and migrate from lymph node to lymph node. This dynamic movement allows them to survey for invading pathogens and participate in immune responses. In contrast, macrophages are relatively stationary within the lymph nodes.

Types of Lymphocytes

  1. T cells: T cells, also known as thymus cells, are a major component of the adaptive immune response. They play a crucial role in cell-mediated immunity. T cells recognize specific antigens presented by infected cells or antigen-presenting cells and initiate immune responses tailored to eliminate pathogens or infected cells. There are different types of T cells, including helper T cells, cytotoxic T cells, and memory T cells.
  2. B cells: B cells, derived from bone marrow or bursa (in birds), are another major component of the adaptive immune response. B cells are primarily responsible for humoral immunity, which involves the production of antibodies. When B cells encounter foreign antigens, they differentiate into plasma cells that produce and release large quantities of antibodies. These antibodies bind to specific pathogens and neutralize them, preventing their harmful effects.
  3. Natural killer (NK) cells: NK cells are part of the innate immune system and play a crucial role in defending the body against tumors and virally infected cells. They have the ability to recognize and kill abnormal cells, such as those lacking a specific surface molecule called MHC class I. NK cells are activated in response to interferons, a family of cytokines. Once activated, NK cells release cytotoxic granules that destroy the targeted cells.
  4. Dual expresser lymphocyte – X cell: The X lymphocyte, also known as a dual expresser lymphocyte, is a reported cell type that expresses both a B-cell receptor and T-cell receptor. It has been hypothesized to be involved in type 1 diabetes. However, its existence as a distinct cell type has been challenged by some studies, and further research is needed to determine its nature and properties.

These different types of lymphocytes collectively contribute to the immune response by recognizing and eliminating foreign antigens, producing antibodies, and regulating immune reactions.

Development of Lymphocytes

Lymphocytes, the key cells of the adaptive immune system, undergo a complex process of development known as lymphopoiesis. This process occurs in the bone marrow and other specialized primary lymphoid organs. Here is an overview of the development of lymphocytes:

  1. Hematopoiesis: Mammalian stem cells differentiate into various types of blood cells through a process called hematopoiesis. Within the bone marrow, lymphocytes arise from a common lymphoid progenitor.
  2. B Cell Maturation: In mammals, B cells mature in the bone marrow. The bone marrow provides a microenvironment where B cells undergo selection processes, ensuring their proper development and function. During maturation, B cells undergo gene rearrangement to generate a diverse repertoire of antigen receptors.
  3. T Cell Maturation: T cells, on the other hand, migrate from the bone marrow to a distinct primary lymphoid organ called the thymus. Within the thymus, T cells undergo a rigorous process of selection and maturation. This process involves positive and negative selection, ensuring that T cells have functional antigen receptors and are tolerant to self-antigens.
  4. Circulation and Migration: After maturation, both B cells and T cells leave the primary lymphoid organs and enter the circulation. From the bloodstream, they migrate to secondary lymphoid organs, such as the spleen and lymph nodes. These organs serve as sites for immune surveillance and activation.
  5. Antigen Exposure and Activation: When lymphocytes encounter specific antigens, they can be further differentiated into effector and memory lymphocytes. B cells, upon activation, can differentiate into plasma cells that produce and release antibodies, leading to the elimination of the antigen. T cells, including cytotoxic T cells and helper T cells, can also become activated and carry out specific functions to eliminate the antigen or assist in immune responses.
  6. Memory Cells: Following antigen exposure, a subset of lymphocytes differentiates into memory cells. Memory cells have a prolonged lifespan and remain in peripheral tissues and circulation. They provide long-term immunity and are poised to mount a rapid and robust response upon re-exposure to the same antigen.

The development of lymphocytes is a tightly regulated process that ensures the generation of diverse and functional immune cells capable of recognizing and responding to a wide range of antigens. This complex process is essential for the proper functioning of the adaptive immune system.

Subsets of B and T lymphocytes

B and T lymphocytes, the key players in adaptive immunity, consist of different subsets with unique phenotypic and functional characteristics. Here are the major subsets of B and T lymphocytes:


B Lymphocyte Subsets:

  1. Follicular B Cells: Found within the germinal centers of lymphoid tissues, follicular B cells are responsible for producing high-affinity antibodies upon encountering antigens. They play a crucial role in the humoral immune response and are involved in the formation of memory B cells.
  2. Marginal Zone B Cells: Located in the marginal zone of the spleen and certain other lymphoid tissues, marginal zone B cells are specialized in capturing blood-borne pathogens. They provide rapid antibody-mediated responses against encapsulated bacteria and participate in the early defense against blood-borne infections.
  3. B-1 Cells: B-1 cells are a subset of B cells that are primarily found in body cavities, such as the pleural and peritoneal cavities. They are responsible for producing “natural antibodies” that provide immediate protection against pathogens. B-1 cells are involved in the innate-like immune response.

T Lymphocyte Subsets:

  1. CD4+ Helper T Lymphocytes: CD4+ T cells, also known as T helper cells, express the CD4 receptor and assist other immune cells in their responses. They regulate immune reactions by releasing cytokines that direct the activities of other cells. CD4+ T cells play a critical role in orchestrating both humoral and cellular immune responses.
  2. CD8+ Cytotoxic T Lymphocytes (CTLs): CD8+ T cells, also called cytotoxic T lymphocytes, express the CD8 receptor and possess the ability to directly kill infected cells or cancerous cells. They recognize and eliminate cells displaying antigens derived from intracellular pathogens or tumor-associated antigens. CTLs play a crucial role in cellular immune responses.
  3. CD4+ Regulatory T Cells: CD4+ regulatory T cells (Tregs) are a distinct subset of CD4+ T cells that express FoxP3, a transcription factor associated with immune regulation. Their primary function is to suppress excessive immune responses and maintain immune tolerance. Tregs help prevent autoimmune diseases and control immune reactions to self-antigens.

Natural Killer (NK) Cells: NK cells are lymphoid cells that belong to the innate immune system rather than the adaptive immune system. They do not possess antigen-specific receptors like B and T cells. Instead, NK cells recognize and eliminate virus-infected cells, tumor cells, and other abnormal cells through a mechanism called natural cytotoxicity. NK cells play a critical role in the early defense against pathogens and the surveillance of cellular abnormalities.

Lymphocytes and disease

Lymphocytes play a crucial role in the immune response against various diseases and infections. Abnormalities in lymphocyte counts and function can indicate underlying health conditions. Here are some key aspects of lymphocytes in relation to disease:

  • Lymphocytosis: An increase in the number of lymphocytes, known as lymphocytosis, is often observed in response to viral infections. This elevated lymphocyte count is a common sign of the body’s immune system fighting off viral pathogens. In some rare cases, lymphocytosis may be associated with leukemias, where there is an abnormal increase in lymphocytes. Additionally, certain conditions such as lymphoma can cause a high lymphocyte count accompanied by a low neutrophil count.
  • Lymphocytopenia: Conversely, a decrease in lymphocyte concentration, referred to as lymphocytopenia, can occur due to various factors. After surgery or trauma, a low normal to low absolute lymphocyte count may be observed, increasing the risk of infection. Infections like human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) specifically target and destroy T cells, particularly the CD4+ subgroup, leading to a decline in lymphocyte counts. This compromises the immune system’s ability to fight off infections, making individuals more susceptible to opportunistic infections. Monitoring the percentage of CD4+ T cells in the blood is commonly used to determine the progression of HIV to acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).
  • Tumor-Infiltrating Lymphocytes (TILs): In certain cancers, such as melanoma and colorectal cancer, lymphocytes can migrate into the tumor microenvironment and mount an immune response against the cancer cells. This immune infiltration by lymphocytes, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs), is associated with a positive prognosis and can contribute to the regression of the primary tumor. Harnessing the power of TILs is an active area of research in cancer immunotherapy.
  • Lymphocyte Disorders: Lymphocyte abnormalities can also be indicative of specific diseases. For instance, lymphocytosis caused by pertussis toxin (PTx) of Bordetella pertussis can impair the entry of lymphocytes into lymph nodes. Other viral infections or lymphocyte disorders can be assessed by evaluating the lymphocyte count in the blood. Changes in lymphocyte populations, such as a decrease in CD4+ T cells, can provide insights into the progression and management of various diseases.

Monitoring lymphocyte counts and understanding their role in immune responses helps healthcare professionals diagnose and manage a wide range of diseases. Lymphocytes are essential for maintaining a healthy immune system, and their evaluation is valuable in assessing immune function and identifying underlying conditions.

Functions of Lymphocytes

Lymphocytes play vital roles in the immune system and are involved in various functions that contribute to the body’s defense against pathogens and diseases. Here are the key functions of lymphocytes:

  • Antigen Recognition: Lymphocytes possess antigen receptors on their surface that allow them to recognize specific antigens, which are molecules found on the surface of pathogens or abnormal cells. This recognition is crucial for initiating an immune response.
  • Adaptive Immunity: Lymphocytes are central to the adaptive immune response, which is a specific and targeted defense mechanism. B cells and T cells, the two main types of lymphocytes, work together to provide adaptive immunity.
  • Antibody Production: B cells, also known as B lymphocytes, are responsible for producing antibodies as part of the humoral immune response. Antibodies are proteins that bind to specific antigens, marking them for destruction and neutralizing their harmful effects.
  • Cell-Mediated Immunity: T cells, also known as T lymphocytes, are involved in cell-mediated immunity. They directly attack and destroy infected cells or abnormal cells, such as cancer cells. Cytotoxic T cells, in particular, play a critical role in recognizing and eliminating these target cells.
  • Immune Regulation: Some lymphocytes, such as regulatory T cells (Tregs), help regulate and control the immune response. They prevent excessive immune reactions and maintain immune tolerance, which is important for preventing autoimmune diseases and maintaining immune balance.
  • Memory Response: Lymphocytes have the ability to generate memory cells. Memory B cells and memory T cells “remember” specific antigens they have encountered before. This memory allows for a faster and stronger immune response upon re-exposure to the same antigen, providing long-term immunity.
  • Immune Surveillance: Lymphocytes constantly circulate throughout the body, patrolling the bloodstream, lymphatic system, and lymphoid organs. They act as immune sentinels, detecting and responding to foreign invaders, infected cells, or abnormal cells. This immune surveillance helps identify and eliminate potential threats.
  • Coordination of Immune Responses: Lymphocytes communicate and coordinate with other immune cells through the release of signaling molecules called cytokines. This coordination ensures a well-regulated and effective immune response against pathogens.

Overall, lymphocytes are essential for the proper functioning of the immune system. Their ability to recognize antigens, produce antibodies, eliminate infected or abnormal cells, and maintain immune balance is crucial for protecting the body against diseases and maintaining overall health.


What are lymphocytes?

Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell (leukocyte) that plays a key role in the immune system. They are responsible for recognizing and responding to foreign substances, such as pathogens or abnormal cells, in the body.

How are lymphocytes produced?

Lymphocytes are produced through a process called hematopoiesis, which occurs primarily in the bone marrow. Stem cells differentiate into different types of blood cells, including lymphocytes, which then mature and populate the lymphoid organs.

What is the function of B cells?

B cells are responsible for the production of antibodies, also known as immunoglobulins. These antibodies help neutralize pathogens and facilitate their elimination by other immune cells.

What is the function of T cells?

T cells play a crucial role in cell-mediated immunity. They can directly attack and destroy infected cells or abnormal cells, and they also help regulate and coordinate immune responses by releasing signaling molecules called cytokines.

What are the different types of lymphocytes?

The main types of lymphocytes are B cells, T cells, and natural killer (NK) cells. B cells produce antibodies, T cells are involved in cell-mediated immunity, and NK cells are part of the innate immune system and target infected or abnormal cells.

What is the role of NK cells?

NK cells are part of the innate immune system and are involved in the recognition and elimination of virus-infected cells and tumor cells. They do not require prior activation and can directly induce cell death in their targets.

What is lymphocytosis?

Lymphocytosis refers to an increased number of lymphocytes in the blood. It can be a normal response to viral infections, but it can also be associated with certain medical conditions, such as lymphocytic leukemia or chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

What is lymphocytopenia?

Lymphocytopenia is a decrease in the number of lymphocytes in the blood. It can occur as a result of certain infections, autoimmune disorders, chemotherapy, or conditions that affect the production or function of lymphocytes.

Can lymphocytes help in diagnosing diseases?

Yes, lymphocyte counts and their subsets can provide valuable information in diagnosing various diseases. Abnormal lymphocyte counts or alterations in their ratios can indicate infections, autoimmune disorders, certain cancers, or immunodeficiency conditions.

Can lymphocytes be used for immunotherapy?

Yes, lymphocytes, particularly T cells, can be utilized in immunotherapy approaches such as adoptive cell therapy and CAR-T cell therapy. These treatments involve modifying and reinfusing a patient’s own lymphocytes to enhance their anti-cancer or anti-pathogen activity.

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