Objectives: Most patients with anti-NMDA receptor (NMDAR) encephalitis have intrathecal synthesis of antibodies, which cause a decrease of cell surface and synaptic NMDAR. Antibodies are immunoglobulin G (IgG)1 and IgG3 subtypes and can potentially activate complement. We examined whether complement immunoreactivity and antibody-secreting cells (plasma cells/plasmablasts) are present in the brain of these patients.
Methods: Cultured rat hippocampal neurons were used in an immunocytochemical assay to test whether patients' antibodies can fix complement. Using the same reagents (antibodies to C9neo, C(5b-9), C3), complement immunoreactivity was determined in the brain of 5 patients, the teratoma of 21 patients, and appropriate control tissues. A set of markers for B (CD20), T (CD3, CD4, CD8) and antibody-secreting cells (plasma cells/plasmablasts, CD138) were used to examine the brain inflammatory infiltrates.
Results: Patients' antibodies were able to bind complement in vitro, but deposits of complement were not detected in patients' brain. Parallel experiments with teratomas showed that in contrast to the brain, the neural tissue of the tumors contained complement. Analysis of the inflammatory infiltrates in brain samples from autopsy or biopsy performed 3-4 weeks after symptom presentation demonstrated numerous antibody-secreting cells (CD138+) in perivascular, interstitial, and Virchow-Robin spaces, and B and T cells predominantly located in perivascular regions.
Conclusions: Complement-mediated mechanisms do not appear to play a substantial pathogenic role in anti-NMDAR encephalitis. In contrast, there are copious infiltrates of antibody-secreting cells (plasma cells/plasmablasts) in the CNS of these patients. The demonstration of these cells provides an explanation for the intrathecal synthesis of antibodies and has implications for treatment.