Experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE) is an inflammatory disease of the central nervous system that can be induced in a number of species by immunization with myelin basic protein (MBP) in adjuvant, and serves as an experimental model for the study of multiple sclerosis. The role of the thymus in acquired tolerance in autoimmune models has not been thoroughly investigated. In this study, we examined the effects of intrathymic injection of MBP or its major encephalitogenic peptide on the course of EAE in Lewis rats. A single intrathymic injection of MBP 48 h pre- but not postimmunization protects animals from actively induced EAE. An intact MBP-primed thymus was required up to 10 d postimmunization, as thymectomy on days 1, 2, and 7 postimmunization abrogated the protective effect, whereas thymectomy on day 10 did not. The proliferative response of primed lymphocytes was significantly reduced in animals that were intrathymically injected with MBP. Protection against clinical EAE was induced by thymic injection of the major encephalitogenic region (residues 71-90) but not a nonencephalitogenic (21-40) MBP epitope. Immunohistologic examination of the brain from rats intrathymically injected with encephalitogenic peptide showed markedly reduced cellular infiltrate and virtual absence of activation and inflammatory cytokines as compared with rats intrathymically injected with the nonencephalitogenic peptide. These results indicate that the thymus may play an active role in acquired systemic immunologic tolerance in T cell-mediated experimental autoimmune diseases. This effect may be mediated by a process of clonal inactivation of autoreactive T cell clones circulating through the thymus.

This content is only available as a PDF.