Malnutrition is commonly associated with increased infectious disease susceptibility and severity. Whereas malnutrition might enhance the incidence of disease as well as its severity, active infection can in turn exacerbate malnutrition. Therefore, in a malnourished individual suffering from a severe infection, it is not possible to determine the contribution of the pre-existing malnutrition and/or the infection itself to increased disease severity. In the current study we focussed on two groups of malnourished, but otherwise healthy individuals: moderately malnourished (BMI: 18.4-16.5) and severely malnourished (BMI <16.5) and compared several immune parameters with those of individuals with a normal BMI (≥18.5). Our results show a similar haematological profile in all three groups, as well as a similar ratio of CD4+ and CD8+ T cells. We found significant correlations between low BMI and increased levels of T helper (Th) 1 (Interferon (IFN)-γ, (interleukin (IL)-2, IL-12), Th2 (IL-4, IL-5, IL-13), as well as IL-10, IL-33 and tumor necrosis factor-α, but not IL-8 or C reactive protein. The activities of arginase, an enzyme associated with immunosuppression, were similar in plasma, peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) and neutrophils from all groups and no differences in the expression levels of CD3ζ, a marker of T cell activation, were observed in CD4+ and CD8+T cells. Furthermore, whereas the capacity of neutrophils from the malnourished groups to phagocytose particles was not impaired, their capacity to produce reactive oxygen species was impaired. Finally we evaluated the frequency of a subpopulation of low-density neutrophils and show that they are significantly increased in the malnourished individuals. These differences were more pronounced in the severely malnourished group. In summary, our results show that even in the absence of apparent infections, healthy malnourished individuals display dysfunctional immune responses that might contribute to increased susceptibility and severity to infectious diseases
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