Immunization with neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptor induces neurological autoimmune disease

J Clin Invest. 2003 Mar;111(6):907-13. doi: 10.1172/JCI17429.


Neuronal nicotinic AChRs (nAChRs) are implicated in the pathogenesis of diverse neurological disorders and in the regulation of small-cell lung carcinoma growth. Twelve subunits have been identified in vertebrates, and mutations of one are recognized in a rare form of human epilepsy. Mice with genetically manipulated neuronal nAChR subunits exhibit behavioral or autonomic phenotypes. Here, we report the first model of an acquired neuronal nAChR disorder and evidence for its pertinence to paraneoplastic neurological autoimmunity. Rabbits immunized once with recombinant alpha3 subunit (residues 1-205) develop profound gastrointestinal hypomotility, dilated pupils with impaired light response, and grossly distended bladders. As in patients with idiopathic and paraneoplastic autoimmune autonomic neuropathy, the severity parallels serum levels of ganglionic nAChR autoantibody. Failure of neurotransmission through abdominal sympathetic ganglia, with retention of neuronal viability, confirms that the disorder is a postsynaptic channelopathy. In addition, we found ganglionic nAChR protein in small-cell carcinoma lines, identifying this cancer as a potential initiator of ganglionic nAChR autoimmunity. The data support our hypothesis that immune responses driven by distinct neuronal nAChR subtypes expressed in small-cell carcinomas account for several lung cancer-related paraneoplastic disorders affecting cholinergic systems, including autoimmune autonomic neuropathy, seizures, dementia, and movement disorders.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autoantibodies / blood
  • Autoimmune Diseases of the Nervous System / complications
  • Autoimmune Diseases of the Nervous System / etiology*
  • Autonomic Nervous System Diseases / complications
  • Autonomic Nervous System Diseases / etiology*
  • Carcinoma, Small Cell / complications
  • Eye Diseases / etiology
  • Female
  • Ganglia, Autonomic / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Immunization
  • Lung Neoplasms / complications
  • Rabbits
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / analysis
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / classification
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / immunology*
  • Tumor Cells, Cultured
  • Urinary Bladder Diseases / etiology


  • Autoantibodies
  • Receptors, Nicotinic