Myasthenia gravis: a comprehensive review of immune dysregulation and etiological mechanisms

J Autoimmun. 2014 Aug:52:90-100. doi: 10.1016/j.jaut.2013.12.011. Epub 2014 Jan 3.


Autoimmune myasthenia gravis (MG) is characterized by muscle weakness caused by antibodies directed against proteins of the neuromuscular junction. The main antigenic target is the acetylcholine receptor (AChR), but the muscle Specific Kinase (MuSK) and the low-density lipoprotein receptor-related protein (LRP4) are also targets. This review summarizes the clinical and biological data available for different subgroups of patients, who are classified according to antigenic target, age of onset, and observed thymic abnormalities, such as follicular hyperplasia or thymoma. Here, we analyze in detail the role of the thymus in the physiopathology of MG and propose an explanation for the development of the thymic follicular hyperplasia that is commonly observed in young female patients with anti-AChR antibodies. The influence of the pro-inflammatory environment is discussed, particularly the role of TNF-α and Th17-related cytokines, which could explain the escape of thymic T cells from regulation and the chronic inflammation in the MG thymus. Together with this immune dysregulation, active angiogenic processes and the upregulation of chemokines could promote thymic follicular hyperplasia. MG is a multifactorial disease, and we review the etiological mechanisms that could lead to its onset. Recent global genetic analyses have highlighted potential susceptibility genes. In addition, miRNAs, which play a crucial role in immune function, have been implicated in MG by recent studies. We also discuss the role of sex hormones and the influence of environmental factors, such as the viral hypothesis. This hypothesis is supported by reports that type I interferon and molecules mimicking viral infection can induce thymic changes similar to those observed in MG patients with anti-AChR antibodies.

Keywords: Genetics; Germinal centers; IL-17; Inflammation; Treg cells; miRNA.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autoantibodies / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Hyperplasia
  • Lipoproteins, LDL / immunology
  • MicroRNAs / genetics
  • MicroRNAs / metabolism
  • Myasthenia Gravis / etiology
  • Myasthenia Gravis / immunology*
  • Receptor Protein-Tyrosine Kinases / immunology
  • Receptors, Cholinergic / immunology
  • Th1 Cells / immunology
  • Th17 Cells / immunology
  • Thymoma / etiology
  • Thymoma / immunology*
  • Thymus Gland / pathology*
  • Thymus Neoplasms / etiology
  • Thymus Neoplasms / immunology*
  • Virus Diseases / complications
  • Virus Diseases / immunology*


  • Autoantibodies
  • Lipoproteins, LDL
  • MicroRNAs
  • Receptors, Cholinergic
  • MUSK protein, human
  • Receptor Protein-Tyrosine Kinases