Autoimmune regulator (Aire) promotes the ectopic expression of tissue-restricted antigens in medullary thymic epithelial cells (mTECs), leading to negative selection of autoreactive T cells. This study was undertaken to determine whether loss of central tolerance renders Aire-deficient (Aire−/−) mice more susceptible to the induction of autoimmune arthritis.


Medullary TECs were isolated from Aire−/− and wild-type C57BL/6 mice for gene expression analysis. Collagen-induced arthritis (CIA) was elicited by injection of chick type II collagen (CII) in adjuvant. Cellular and humoral immune responses to CII were evaluated. Chimeric mice were created by reconstituting lymphocyte-deficient mice with either Aire−/− or wild-type CD4 T cells and wild-type B cells.


Wild-type, but not Aire−/−, mTECs expressed the CII gene Col2a1. Aire−/− mice developed more rapid and severe CIA, showing elevated serum anti-CII IgG levels, with earlier switching to arthritogenic IgG subclasses. No evidence was found of enhanced T cell responsiveness to CII in Aire−/− mice; however, Aire−/− CD4 T cells were more efficient at stimulating wild-type B cells to produce anti-CII IgG following immunization of chimeric mice with CII.


Our findings indicate that Aire-dependent expression of CII occurs in mTECs, implying that there is central tolerance to self antigens found in articular cartilage. Reduced central tolerance to CII in Aire−/− mice manifests as increased CD4 T cell help to B cells for cross-reactive autoantibody production and enhanced CIA. Aire and central tolerance help prevent cross-reactive autoimmune responses to CII initiated by environmental stimuli and limit spontaneous autoimmunity.