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A scanning electron microscope image of normal circulating human blood. In addition to the irregularly shaped leukocytes, both red blood cells and many small disc-shaped platelets are visible.

Leucocytes (also spelled "leukocytes"), or White blood cells (WBCs), are cells of the immune system defending the body against both infectious disease and foreign materials. Five[1] different and diverse types of leukocytes exist, but they are all produced and derived from a multipotent cell in the bone marrow known as a hematopoietic stem cell. Leukocytes are found throughout the body, including the blood and lymphatic system.[2]

Psychologists are interested in these cells to the degree their functioning is affected by psychological factors, which might explain the link between these factors and the occurence of infectious diseases.

The number of leukocytes in the blood is often an indicator of disease. There are normally between 4×109 and 1.1×1010 white blood cells in a litre of blood, making up approximately 1% of blood in a healthy adult.[3] In conditions such as leukemia, the number of leukocytes is higher than normal, and in leukopenia, this number is much lower. The physical properties of leukocytes, such as volume, conductivity, and granularity, may change due to activation, the presence of immature cells, or the presence of malignant leukocytes in leukemia.


The name "white blood cell" derives from the fact that after centrifugation of a blood sample, the white cells are found in the buffy coat, a thin, typically white layer of nucleated cells between the sedimented red blood cells and the blood plasma. The scientific term leukocyte directly reflects this description, derived from Greek leukos - white, and kytos - cell. Blood plasma may sometimes be green if there are large amounts of neutrophils in the sample, due to the heme-containing enzyme myeloperoxidase that they produce.


There are several different types of white blood cells. They all have many things in common, but are all different. A major distinguishing feature of some leukocytes is the presence of granules; white blood cells are often characterized as granulocytes or agranulocytes:

  • Granulocytes (polymorphonuclear leukocytes): leukocytes characterised by the presence of differently staining granules in their cytoplasm when viewed under light microscopy. These granules are membrane-bound enzymes which primarily act in the digestion of endocytosed particles. There are three types of granulocytes: neutrophils, basophils, and eosinophils, which are named according to their staining properties.
  • Agranulocytes (mononuclear leucocytes): leukocytes characterized by the apparent absence of granules in their cytoplasm. Although the name implies a lack of granules these cells do contain non-specific azurophilic granules, which are lysosomes[4]. The cells include lymphocytes, monocytes, and macrophages.[5]

Overview table

Type Microscopic Appearance Diagram Approx. %
in adults[6]
See also:
Blood values
Diameter (μm)[6] Main targets[7] Nucleus[7] Granules[7] Lifetime[6]
Neutrophil PBNeutrophil.jpg Neutrophil.png 54-62%[5] 10-12 multilobed fine, faintly pink (H&E Stain) 6 hours-few days
(days in spleen and other tissue)
Eosinophil Eosinophil.jpg File:Eosinophil2.png 1-6% 10-12 bi-lobed full of pink-orange (H&E Stain) 8-12 days (circulate for 4-5 hours)
Basophil File:PBBasophil.jpg File:Basophil.png <1% 12-15 bi-lobed or tri-lobed large blue ?
Lymphocyte File:Lymphocyte2.jpg File:Lymphocyte.png 25-33% 7-8 deeply staining, eccentric NK-cells and Cytotoxic (CD8+) T-cells [8] weeks to years
Monocyte Monocyte.png 2-8% 14-17 Monocytes migrate from the bloodstream to other tissues and differentiate into tissue resident macrophages or dendritic cells. kidney shaped none hours-days
Macrophage Macrophage.jpg Macrophage.png 21 (human)[9] Phagocytosis (engulfment and digestion) of cellular debris and pathogens, and stimulation of lymphocytes and other immune cells that respond to the pathogen. activated=days immature=months-years
Dendritic cells File:Dendritic cell.JPG File:Dendritic Cell ZP.svg Main function is as an antigen-presenting cell (APC) that activates T lymphocytes. similar to macrophages


Main article: Neutrophil

Neutrophils defend against bacterial or fungal infection and other very small inflammatory processes that are usually first responders to microbial infection; their activity and death in large numbers forms pus. They are commonly referred to as polymorphonuclear (PMN) leukocytes, although technically PMN refers to all granulocytes. They have a multilobed nucleus which may appear like multiple nuclei, hence the name polymorphonuclear leukocyte. The cytoplasm may look transparent because of fine granules that are faintly pink. Neutrophils are very active in phagocytosing bacteria and are present in large amount in the pus of wounds. These cells are not able to renew their lysosomes used in digesting microbes and die after having phagocytosed a few pathogens. [How to reference and link to summary or text]


Main article: Eosinophil

Eosinophils primarily deal with parasitic infections and an increase in them may indicate such. Eosinophils are also the predominant inflammatory cells in allergic reactions. The most important causes of eosinophilia include allergies such as asthma, hay fever, and hives; and also parasitic infections. Generally their nucleus is bi-lobed. The cytoplasm is full of granules which assume a characteristic pink-orange color with eosin stain.


Main article: Basophil granulocyte

Basophils are chiefly responsible for allergic and antigen response by releasing the chemical histamine causing inflammation. The nucleus is bi- or tri-lobed, but it is hard to see because of the number of coarse granules which hide it. They are characterized by their large blue granules.


Main article: Lymphocytes

Lymphocytes are much more common in the lymphatic system. Lymphocytes are distinguished by having a deeply staining nucleus which may be eccentric in location, and a relatively small amount of cytoplasm. The blood has three types of lymphocytes:

  • B cells: B cells make antibodies that bind to pathogens to enable their destruction. (B cells not only make antibodies that bind to pathogens, but after an attack, some B cells will retain the ability to produce an antibody to serve as a 'memory' system.)
  • T cells:
    • CD4+ (helper) T cells co-ordinate the immune response and are important in the defense against intracellular bacteria. In acute HIV infection, these T cells are the main index to identify the individual's immune system activity. Research has shown [10] that CD8+ cells are also another index to identify human's immune activity.
    • CD8+ cytotoxic T cells are able to kill virus-infected and tumor cells.
    • γδ T cells possess an alternative T cell receptor as opposed to CD4+ and CD8+ αβ T cells and share characteristics of helper T cells, cytotoxic T cells and natural killer cells.
  • Natural killer cells: Natural killer cells are able to kill cells of the body which are displaying a signal to kill them, as they have been infected by a virus or have become cancerous.


Main article: Monocyte

Monocytes share the "vacuum cleaner" (phagocytosis) function of neutrophils, but are much longer lived as they have an additional role: they present pieces of pathogens to T cells so that the pathogens may be recognized again and killed, or so that an antibody response may be mounted. Monocytes eventually leave the bloodstream to become tissue macrophages which remove dead cell debris as well as attacking microorganisms. Neither of these can be dealt with effectively by the neutrophils. Unlike neutrophils, monocytes are able to replace their lysosomal contents and are thought to have a much longer active life. They have the kidney shaped nucleus and are typically agranulated. They also possess abundant cytoplasm.

Once monocytes move from the bloodstream out into the body tissues, they undergo changes (differentiate) allowing phagocytosis and are then known as macrophages.

Medications causing leukopenia

Some medications can have an impact on the number and function of white blood cells. Leukopenia is the reduction in the number of white blood cells, which may affect the overall white cell count or one of the specific populations of white blood cells. For example, if the number of neutrophils is low, the condition is known as neutropenia. Likewise, low lymphocyte levels are termed lymphopenia. Medications which can cause leukopenia include clozapine, an antipsychotic medication with a rare adverse effect leading to the total absence of all granulocytes (neutrophils, basophils, eosinophils). Other medications include immunosuppressive drugs, such as sirolimus, mycophenolate mofetil, tacrolimus, and cyclosporine. Interferons used to treat multiple sclerosis, like Rebif, Avonex, and Betaseron, can also cause leukopenia.

Fixed leukocytes

Some leukocytes migrate into the tissues of the body to take up a permanent residence at that location rather than remaining in the blood. Often these cells have specific names depending upon which tissue they settle in, such as fixed macrophages in the liver which become known as Kupffer cells. These cells still serve a role in the immune system.

Se also


  1. Brooks, Myrna LaFleur (2008). Exploring Medical Language: A Student-Directed Approach, 7th Edition, 398, St. Louis, Missouri, USA: Mosby Elsevier.
  2. Maton, die; Jean Hopkins, Charles William McLaughlin, Susan Johnson, Maryanna Quon Warner, David LaHart, Jill D. Wright (1000008). Human Biology and Health, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, USA: Prentice Hall.
  3. Alberts, Bruce (2005). Leukocyte functions and percentage breakdown. Molecular Biology of the Cell. NCBI Bookshelf. URL accessed on 2007-04-14.
  4. Gartner, Leslie P. (2007). Color Textbook of Histology, 3rd, 225, SAUNDERS Elsevier.
  5. 5.0 5.1
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Daniels, Victor G.; Wheater, Paul R.; Burkitt, H. George (1979). Functional histology: a text and colour atlas, Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Alberts, Bruce (2005). Leukocyte functions and percentage breakdown. Molecular Biology of the Cell. NCBI Bookshelf. URL accessed on 2007-04-14.
  8. Semester 4 medical lectures at Uppsala University 2008 by Leif Jansson
  9. Krombach F, Münzing S, Allmeling AM, Gerlach JT, Behr J, Dörger M (September 1997). Cell size of alveolar macrophages: an interspecies comparison. Environ. Health Perspect. 105 Suppl 5: 1261–3.
  10. Pantaleo G, Demarest JF, Soudeyns H, et al (August 1994). Major expansion of CD8+ T cells with a predominant V beta usage during the primary immune response to HIV. Nature 370 (6489): 463–7.

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