Peptidyl arginine deiminases (PADs) catalyze a post-translational protein modification reaction called citrullination, where arginine is converted to citrulline. This modification has been linked to the pathogenesis of autoimmune diseases including rheumatoid arthritis (RA). More recently, several studies have suggested that Alzheimer's disease (AD), a devastating neurodegenerative disorder, may have an autoimmune component. In the present study, we have investigated the possibility that expression of PADs and protein citrullination plays a role in the production of brain-reactive autoantibodies that may contribute to Alzheimer's-related brain pathology. Here, we report the selective expression of the PAD isoforms, PAD2 and PAD4, in astrocytes and neurons, respectively, and the concomitant accumulation of citrullinated proteins within PAD4-expressing cells, including neurons of the hippocampus and cerebral cortex. Expression of PADs and citrullinated proteins is prominent in brain regions engaged in neurodegenerative changes typical for AD pathology. Furthermore, we also demonstrate that the pentatricopeptide repeat domain2 (PTCD2) protein, an antigen target of a prominent AD diagnostic autoantibody, is present in a citrullinated form in AD brains. Our results suggest that disease-associated neuronal loss results in the release of cellular contents, including citrullinated proteins, into the brain interstitium. We propose that these citrullinated proteins and their degradation fragments enter into the blood and lymphatic circulation, and some are capable of eliciting an immune response that results in the production of autoantibodies. The long-term and progressive nature of AD and other neurodegenerative diseases results in chronic exposure of the immune system to these citrullinated products and may drive the continual production of autoantibodies.
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