Experimental & Molecular Medicine
Memory-phenotype (MP) CD4+ T cells are a substantial population of conventional T cells that exist in steady-state mice, yet their immunological roles in autoimmune disease remain unclear. In this work, we unveil a unique phenotype of MP CD4+ T cells determined by analyzing single-cell transcriptomic data and T cell receptor (TCR) repertoires. We found that steady-state MP CD4+ T cells in the spleen were composed of heterogeneous effector subpopulations and existed regardless of germ and food antigen exposure. Distinct subpopulations of MP CD4+ T cells were specifically activated by IL-1 family cytokines and STAT activators, revealing that the cells exerted TCR-independent bystander effector functions similar to innate lymphoid cells. In particular, CCR6high subpopulation of MP CD4+ T cells were major responders to IL-23 and IL-1? without MOG35-55 antigen reactivity, which gave them pathogenic Th17 characteristics and allowed them to contribute to autoimmune encephalomyelitis. We identified that Bhlhe40 in CCR6high MP CD4+ T cells as a key regulator of GM-CSF expression through IL-23 and IL-1? signaling, contributing to central nervous system (CNS) pathology in experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis. Collectively, our findings reveal the clearly distinct effector-like heterogeneity of MP CD4+ T cells in the steady state and indicate that CCR6high MP CD4+ T cells exacerbate autoimmune neuroinflammation via the Bhlhe40/GM-CSF axis in a bystander manner.