T cells can be categorized into three distinct classes: helper T cells, regulatory T cells, and cytotoxic T cells. These classes are differentiated based on their expression of certain surface molecules, their mode of activation, and their functional roles in adaptive immunity.
All T cells produce cluster of differentiation (CD) molecules, cell surface glycoproteins that can be used to identify and distinguish between the various types of white blood cells. Although T cells can produce a variety of CD molecules, CD4 and CD8 are the two most important used for differentiation of the classes. Helper T cells and regulatory T cells are characterized by the expression of CD4 on their surface, whereas cytotoxic T cells are characterized by the expression of CD8.
Classes of T cells can also be distinguished by the specific MHC molecules and APCs with which they interact for activation. Helper T cells and regulatory T cells can only be activated by APCs presenting antigens associated with MHC II. In contrast, cytotoxic T cells recognize antigens presented in association with MHC I, either by APCs or by nucleated cells infected with an intracellular pathogen.
The different classes of T cells also play different functional roles in the immune system. Helper T cells serve as the central orchestrators that help activate and direct functions of humoral and cellular immunity. In addition, helper T cells enhance the pathogen-killing functions of macrophages and NK cells of innate immunity. In contrast, the primary role of regulatory T cells is to prevent undesirable and potentially damaging immune responses. Their role in peripheral tolerance, for example, protects against autoimmune disorders, as discussed earlier. Finally, cytotoxic T cells are the primary effector cells for cellular immunity. They recognize and target cells that have been infected by intracellular pathogens, destroying infected cells along with the pathogens inside.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology