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T-cell activation

High Yield Notes
18 pages

Content Reviewers:

Rishi Desai, MD, MPH

The immune response is highly specific for each invader, and that’s because the cells of the adaptive immune response have receptors that can differentiate friendly bacteria from potentially deadly pathogens from their unique parts - called antigens.

The key cells of the adaptive immune response are the lymphocytes - the B and T cells.

T cells develop in the thymus where they undergo a process called VDJ rearrangement to generate a massively diverse set of T cell receptors, or TCRs.

There are two types of T cells which are identified based on molecules they express on their surface.

Helper T cells express CD4 on their surface, and their main function is to support other immune cells.

Cytotoxic T cells express CD8 on their surface, and their main function is to kill infected or cancerous cells.

A T cell starts out naive and then gets primed or activated - at which point it differentiates into an effector T cell and proliferates. Activation of both helper and cytotoxic T cells requires two signals.

After that the cytokines present around the cell determine the type of T cell it will become. The first signal occurs when a T cell receptor binds to an antigen.

Now, a T cell receptor can only recognize antigens that are peptides, rather than carbohydrates or lipids.

And the T cell receptor also needs to have a peptide presented on a major histocompatibility complex, also known as MHC.

MHC molecules act like serving platters present the antigen to T cells.There are two types of MHC molecules that work with the two types of T cells.

MHC class I molecules present antigen to CD8+ T cells and MHC class II molecules present antigen to CD4+ T cells.

MHC class II molecules are found on the surface of an antigen presenting cell like a macrophage or dendritic cells while MHC class I molecules are found on all nucleated cells throughout the body.

The antigen presented on the MHC molecule must be the right size and shape to bind strongly to the T cell receptor which is part of the CD3 complex.

The CD3 complex has 8 peptide chains, one alpha, one beta, one gamma, one delta, two epsilon, and two zeta chains.

The antigen binding site of the T cell receptor is composed of the alpha chain and the beta chain, each of which have two domains - a variable domain and a constant domain.

The variable regions of the alpha and beta chains of the CD3 complex of the T cell receptor bind the antigen, and the remainder of the CD3 complex binds to the MHC molecule.

Whether it binds MHC I or MHC II depends on if the T cell expresses CD4 or CD8.

The constant domain has a short transmembrane segment and a short cytoplasmic segment.

The transmembrane segment contains cysteine residues which allow two adjacent chains to form a disulfide bond, connecting the chains to one another.

And the variable domain of the alpha and beta chain come together to form a single antigen binding site. This is different from the B cell receptor which has two antigen binding sites.

Also, unlike the B cell receptor, the T cell receptor is surface bound and cannot be secreted.

Now, in addition to the T cell receptor, CD4 binds to the MHC class II molecule and CD8 binds to the MHC class I molecule - and that helps securing the interaction between the T cell receptor and the MHC molecule.

Second, the cytoplasmic portion of the alpha and beta chains of the T cell receptor are rather short.

As a result, the signal that the T cell receptor has successfully bound an antigen, gets sent down other portions of the CD3 complex as well as the CD4 or CD8 molecules. The second signal required for T cell activation is called co-stimulation.

And it’s when a ligand that’s on the surface of a T cell called CD28, binds to a ligand called B7 on the antigen presenting cell.

Antigen presenting cells start expressing higher levels of B7 on their surface when there are inflammatory cytokines like interferon-gamma, IL-1 beta, and TNF-alpha around.

Now, if a T cell sees its antigen without costimulation it become anergic, meaning that the cell won’t get activated, even if it sees the antigen in the future.


T-cell activation is the process by which an antigen-presenting cell (APC) activates a T-cell. It is an important part of the immune system, as it helps the body to fight off infections and other foreign invaders. During T-cell activation, the APC presents antigen to the T-cell receptor, which then triggers a cascade of signals inside the T-cell, leading to the activation and proliferation of the T-cell. The activation of the T-cell leads to the production of cytokines and other immunological molecules, which help to target and destroy the invading pathogen.