The emergence of “highly pathogenic” isolates of porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus (HP-PRRSV) has raised new concerns about PRRS control. Cells from the porcine monocyte-macrophage lineage represent the target for this virus, which replicates mainly in the lung, and especially in HP-PRRSV strains, also in lymphoid organs, such as the thymus. This study aimed at evaluating the impact of two PRRSV strains of different virulence on thymic macrophages as well as after heterologous vaccination. After experimental infection with PR11 and PR40 PRRSV1 subtype 1 strains (low and high virulent, respectively) samples from thymus were analysed by histopathology and immunohistochemistry for PRRSV N protein, TUNEL, CD172a, CD163, CD107a and BA4D5 expression. Mortality was similar in both infected groups, but lung lesions and thymus atrophy were more intense in PR40 group. Animals died at 10–14 dpi after PR11 or PR40 infection showed the most severe histopathological lesions, with a strong inflammatory response of the stroma and extensive cell death phenomena in the cortex. These animals presented an increase in the number of N protein, CD172a, CD163 and BA4D5 positive cells in the stroma and the cortex together with a decrease in the number of CD107a positive cells. Our results highlight the recruitment of macrophages in the thymus, the increase in the expression of CD163 and the regulation of the host cytotoxic activity by macrophages. However, no marked differences were observed between PR11- and PR40-infected animals. Heterologous vaccination restrained virus spread and lesions extent in the thymus of PR40-infected animals.
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