Purpose of review: The human central nervous system (CNS) can mistakenly be the target of adaptive cellular and humoral immune responses causing both functional and structural impairment. We here provide an overview of neuron-directed autoimmunity as a novel class of inflammatory CNS disorders, their differential diagnoses, clinical hallmarks, imaging features, characteristic laboratory, electrophysiological, cerebrospinal fluid and neuropathological findings, cellular and molecular disease mechanisms, as well as therapeutic options.
Recent findings: A growing number of immune-mediated CNS disorders of both autoimmune and paraneoplastic origin have emerged, in which neurons seem to be the target of the immune response. Antibodies binding to a variety of synaptic and extrasynaptic antigens located on the neuronal surface membrane can define distinct entities. Clinically, these disorders are characterized by subacute CNS-related [and sometimes peripheral nervous system (PNS)-related] symptoms involving a variety of cortical and subcortical gray matter areas, which often reflect the expression pattern and function of the respective target antigen. Antibodies seem to be pathogenic and cause (reversible) disturbance of synaptic transmission and neuronal excitability by selective functional inhibition or crosslinking and internalization of their antigen in the absence of overt cytotoxicity, at least at early disease stages. Whether at later disease stages antibody-mediated cytotoxicity, cytotoxic CD8+ T cells, or other detrimental immune mechanisms contribute to neuronal impairment is unclear at present.
Summary: Adaptive humoral autoimmunity directed to neuronal cell-surface antigens offers first and unique insights and provokes further investigation into the systemic, cellular, and molecular consequences of immune-mediated disruption of distinct neuronal signaling pathways within the living human CNS.