Breaking tolerance to thyroid antigens: changing concepts in thyroid autoimmunity

Endocr Rev. 2014 Feb;35(1):59-105. doi: 10.1210/er.2013-1055. Epub 2013 Dec 4.


Thyroid autoimmunity involves loss of tolerance to thyroid proteins in genetically susceptible individuals in association with environmental factors. In central tolerance, intrathymic autoantigen presentation deletes immature T cells with high affinity for autoantigen-derived peptides. Regulatory T cells provide an alternative mechanism to silence autoimmune T cells in the periphery. The TSH receptor (TSHR), thyroid peroxidase (TPO), and thyroglobulin (Tg) have unusual properties ("immunogenicity") that contribute to breaking tolerance, including size, abundance, membrane association, glycosylation, and polymorphisms. Insight into loss of tolerance to thyroid proteins comes from spontaneous and induced animal models: 1) intrathymic expression controls self-tolerance to the TSHR, not TPO or Tg; 2) regulatory T cells are not involved in TSHR self-tolerance and instead control the balance between Graves' disease and thyroiditis; 3) breaking TSHR tolerance involves contributions from major histocompatibility complex molecules (humans and induced mouse models), TSHR polymorphism(s) (humans), and alternative splicing (mice); 4) loss of tolerance to Tg before TPO indicates that greater Tg immunogenicity vs TPO dominates central tolerance expectations; 5) tolerance is induced by thyroid autoantigen administration before autoimmunity is established; 6) interferon-α therapy for hepatitis C infection enhances thyroid autoimmunity in patients with intact immunity; Graves' disease developing after T-cell depletion reflects reconstitution autoimmunity; and 7) most environmental factors (including excess iodine) "reveal," but do not induce, thyroid autoimmunity. Micro-organisms likely exert their effects via bystander stimulation. Finally, no single mechanism explains the loss of tolerance to thyroid proteins. The goal of inducing self-tolerance to prevent autoimmune thyroid disease will require accurate prediction of at-risk individuals together with an antigen-specific, not blanket, therapeutic approach.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autoantigens / immunology*
  • Autoimmunity / immunology*
  • Humans
  • Immune Tolerance*
  • Receptors, Thyrotropin / metabolism
  • T-Lymphocytes / immunology
  • T-Lymphocytes / metabolism
  • Thyroid Gland / immunology*
  • Thyroid Gland / metabolism
  • Thyroid Hormones / metabolism*


  • Autoantigens
  • Receptors, Thyrotropin
  • Thyroid Hormones