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Front Neurosci. 2013 Oct 16;7:187. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2013.00187.

Programming of neuroendocrine self in the thymus and its defect in the development of neuroendocrine autoimmunity.

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  • 1Department of Biomedical and Preclinical Sciences, Center of Immunoendocrinology, GIGA Research Institute, Fund of Scientific Research, University of Liege Liege-Sart Tilman, Belgium.

Abstract

For centuries after its first description by Galen, the thymus was considered as only a vestigial endocrine organ until the discovery in 1961 by Jacques FAP Miller of its essential role in the development of T (thymo-dependent) lymphocytes. A unique thymus first appeared in cartilaginous fishes some 500 million years ago, at the same time or shortly after the emergence of the adaptive (acquired) immune system. The thymus may be compared to a small brain or a computer highly specialized in the orchestration of central immunological self-tolerance. This was a necessity for the survival of species, given the potent evolutionary pressure imposed by the high risk of autotoxicity inherent in the stochastic generation of the diversity of immune cell receptors that characterize the adaptive immune response. A new paradigm of "neuroendocrine self-peptides" has been proposed, together with the definition of "neuroendocrine self." Neuroendocrine self-peptides are secreted by thymic epithelial cells (TECs) not according to the classic model of neuroendocrine signaling, but are processed for presentation by, or in association with, the thymic major histocompatibility complex (MHC) proteins. The autoimmune regulator (AIRE) gene/protein controls the transcription of neuroendocrine genes in TECs. The presentation of self-peptides in the thymus is responsible for the clonal deletion of self-reactive T cells, which emerge during the random recombination of gene segments that encode variable parts of the T cell receptor for the antigen (TCR). At the same time, self-antigen presentation in the thymus generates regulatory T (Treg) cells that can inhibit, in the periphery, those self-reactive T cells that escaped negative selection in the thymus. Several arguments indicate that the origin of autoimmunity directed against neuroendocrine glands results primarily from a defect in the intrathymic programming of self-tolerance to neuroendocrine functions. This defect may be genetic or acquired, for example during an enteroviral infection. This novel knowledge of normal and pathologic functions of the thymus constitutes a solid basis for the development of a novel type of tolerogenic/negative self-vaccination against type 1 diabetes (T1D).

KEYWORDS:

AIRE; autoimmunity; insulin-like growth factor 2; neuroendocrine self-peptides; oxytocin; self-tolerance; thymus; type 1 diabetes

PMID:
24137108
[PubMed]
PMCID:
PMC3797387
Free PMC Article

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