Autoimmune thyroid diseases (AITD) are considered as prototypic organ-specific autoimmune diseases, yet their underlying aetiology remains poorly understood. Among the various pathophysiological mechanisms considered, a failure of central tolerance has received little attention. Here we present evidence in favour of dysregulated thymic function playing a role in AITD. Flow-cytometric analyses conducted in peripheral blood lymphocytes from 58 AITD patients and 48 age- and-sex-matched controls showed that AITD patients have significantly higher blood levels of CD4+CD45RA+, CD4 +CD31+ and CD4/CD8 double-positive T lymphocytes, all markers of recent thymic emigrants (RTE). In addition, the α-signal joint T cell receptor excision circles (TRECs) content (a molecular marker of RTEs) was higher in the group of AITD patients older than 35 years than in age-matched controls. This was independent from peripheral T cell expansion as assessed by relative telomere length. Comparisons of TREC levels in peripheral blood lymphocytes and intrathyroidal lymphocytes in paired samples showed higher levels within the thyroid during the initial 30 months of the disease, indicating an influx of RTE into the thyroid during the initial stages of AITD. Additionally, a lack of correlation between TREC levels and forkhead box P3 expression suggests that the intrathyroidal RTE are not natural regulatory T cells. These results uncover a hitherto unknown correlation between altered thymic T cell export, the composition of intrathyroidal T cells and autoimmune pathology. © 2008 British Society for Immunology.
- T cells