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Toxicology. 1998 Feb 6;125(2-3):215-31.

Mercury-induced autoimmunity in Brown Norway rats: kinetics of changes in RT6+ T lymphocytes correlated with IgG isotypes of circulating autoantibodies to laminin 1.

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  • 1Department of Pathology, University of Connecticut Health Center, Farmington 06030, USA.


Repeated exposure to mercury causes various autoimmune effects in rats of the Brown Norway (BN) strain. Previous studies from our laboratory have shown that on day 15 of HgCl2 treatment BN rats exhibit a relative decrease in RT6.2+ T cells. At the same time, they produce high levels of autoantibodies to renal antigens and experience a membranous glomerulonephropathy. In contrast, Lewis (LEW) rats are resistant to autoimmunity caused by mercury and do not demonstrate a decrease in RT6+ cells after administration of HgCl2. In the present paper we provide novel information on the correlation between changes in RT6.2+ lymph node T cells and the production of autoantibodies to laminin 1, obtained by detailed kinetic studies of HgCl2-treated BN rats. We have confirmed a decrease in the percentage of RT6.2+ lymphocytes on day 15 of mercury treatment, despite a significant increase in the number of peripheral lymphocytes. No such changes were observed in LEW rats. We have determined that on day 15 the percentage decrease in RT6+ cells is evident in both RT6.2+CD4+ and RT6.2+CD8+ T cell subsets. Kinetic studies demonstrated that significant changes in the percentage of RT6.2+ cells are first observed by day 8 and continue through days 11 and 15. We have also observed a significant percent decrease in CD4+ T lymphocytes as well as an increase in CD4-CD8- cells. The dramatic increase in the percentage of these double negative cells at the level of peripheral lymphoid tissues does not appear to be due to higher thymic output, since there was a decrease in the percentage of TCR+Thy1+ cells, a phenotype that is associated with recent thymic emigrants. Finally, we have demonstrated that 100% of HgCl2-treated BN rats had circulating antibodies that reacted with both mouse and rat laminin 1, i.e. are autoantibodies to laminin 1. These autoantibodies were predominantly of the IgG1 and IgG2a isotype, possibly as the result of a polarized autoimmune response driven by Type 2 cytokines. A kinetic investigation showed that significant levels of IgG1 and IgG2a autoantibodies to laminin 1 were first presentin the circulation by day 11. The inverse correlation between levels of RT6.2+ T lymphocytes and autoantibodies to laminin 1 suggests that mercury may induce autoimmune responses in BN rats by its effects on these immunoregulatory cells.

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