Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences Of The United States Of America
Aquaporin-4 (AQP4)-specific Th17 cells are thought to have a central role in neuromyelitis optica (NMO) pathogenesis. When modeling NMO, only AQP4-reactive Th17 cells from AQP4-deficient (AQP4−/−), but not wild-type (WT) mice, caused CNS autoimmunity in recipient WT mice, indicating that a tightly regulated mechanism normally ensures tolerance to AQP4. Here, we found that pathogenic AQP4 T cell epitopes bind MHC II with exceptionally high affinity. Examination of T cell receptor (TCR) α/β usage revealed that AQP4-specific T cells from AQP4−/− mice employed a distinct TCR repertoire and exhibited clonal expansion. Selective thymic AQP4 deficiency did not fully restore AQP4-reactive T cells, demonstrating that thymic negative selection alone did not account for AQP4-specific tolerance in WT mice. Indeed, AQP4-specific Th17 cells caused paralysis in recipient WT or B cell-deficient mice, which was followed by complete recovery that was associated with apoptosis of donor T cells. However, donor AQP4-reactive T cells survived and caused persistent paralysis in recipient mice deficient in both T and B cells or mice lacking T cells only. Thus, AQP4 CNS autoimmunity was limited by T cell–dependent deletion of AQP4-reactive T cells. In contrast, myelin oligodendrocyte glycoprotein (MOG)-specific T cells survived and caused sustained disease in WT mice. These findings underscore the importance of peripheral T cell deletional tolerance to AQP4, which may be relevant to understanding the balance of AQP4-reactive T cells in health and in NMO. T cell tolerance to AQP4, expressed in multiple tissues, is distinct from tolerance to MOG, an autoantigen restricted in its expression.