Thyroid-associated eye disease

Strabismus. 2000 Jun;8(2):101-11.


Graves' ophthalmopathy (GO) is thought to result from a complex interplay of genetic and environmental factors. Various genes, including those coding for HLA, may determine a patient's susceptibility to the disease and its severity, but in addition, numerous and often unknown environmental factors may determine its course. Once established, the chronic inflammatory process within the orbital tissues appears to take on a momentum of its own. Based upon our current state of knowledge, we propose the working scheme shown in Fig. 1 for the pathogenesis of GO: Against the background of a permissive immunogenetic milieu, circulating T cells in patients with Graves' Disease (GD), directed against certain antigens on thyroid follicular cells, recognize antigenic epitopes that are shared by tissues contained in the orbital space. Here, preadipocytes and fibroblasts most likely act as target and effector cells of the orbital immune process. This includes preadipocyte fibroblasts present in the perimysium of extraocular muscles, which do not appear to be immunologically or metabolically different from those located in the orbital connective tissue. Differentiation of orbital preadipocyte fibroblasts into mature adipocytes expressing increased levels of TSHR may be driven by stimulation with circulating or locally produced cytokines or effectors. To date, it is still unknown how autoreactive T cells escape deletion by the immune system and become directed against a self-antigen that is presented by cells residing in the thyroid gland and in certain extrathyroidal locations. Mimicry of a host antigen by a microorganism or presentation of an altered self-antigen may promote proliferation and expansion of autoreactive T cell clones. T cell recruitment into the orbital tissues is facilitated by certain chemokines and cytokines, which help to attract T cells by stimulating the expression of several adhesion molecules (e.g. ICAM-1, VCAM-1, CD44) in vascular endothelium and connective tissue cells. Adhesion molecules are known to be important for a variety of interactions between immunocompetent cells, connective tissue cells and extracellular matrix components. In addition, these molecules play a central role in lymphocyte activation and localization, facilitating antigen recognition, T cell costimulation, and various effector-target cell functions at the inflammatory sites, many of which result in amplification of the cellular immune process in active GO. Analysis of variable region genes of T cell antigen receptors in orbital T cells of patients with active GO has revealed limited variability of TcR V gene usage, suggesting that antigen-driven selection and/or expansion of specific T cells may occur during the early stages of GO. T cells and macrophages populate the orbital space and release a number of cytokines (most likely a Th-1-type spectrum) into the surrounding tissues. Cytokines, oxygen free radicals and fibrogenic growth factors, released both from infiltrating inflammatory and residential cells, act upon orbital preadipocytes in a paracrine and autocrine manner to stimulate adipogenesis, fibroblast proliferation, glycosaminoglycan synthesis, and the expression of immunomodulatory molecules. Smoking, a well-known aggravating factor in GO with an uncertain mode of action, may aggravate tissue hypoxia and exert important immunomodulatory effects. Finally, the long-held hypothesis of a thyroid cross-reactive antigen within the orbital tissues has recently gained significant support from an animal model of ophthalmopathy, and from in vitro and ex vivo studies. If confirmed by immunological studies, these data may well explain the localized infiltration of the orbital tissues by autoreactive lymphocytes that share intriguing molecular features with intrathyroidal lymphocytes. Local release of certain cytokines, TSHR-directed autoantibodies, or other factors might further enhance adipogenesis, glycosaminoglycan synthesis and expression of

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adipocytes / metabolism
  • Adipocytes / pathology
  • Autoantigens / immunology
  • Autoimmunity / immunology*
  • B-Lymphocytes / immunology
  • Cytokines / immunology
  • Graves Disease* / immunology
  • Graves Disease* / metabolism
  • Graves Disease* / pathology
  • Humans
  • T-Lymphocytes / immunology


  • Autoantigens
  • Cytokines