Thyroid autoimmunity as a window to autoimmunity: An explanation for sex differences in the prevalence of thyroid autoimmunity

J Theor Biol. 2015 Jun 21:375:95-100. doi: 10.1016/j.jtbi.2014.12.015. Epub 2015 Jan 6.


Autoimmune thyroid diseases (AITDs), predominately Graves׳ disease and Hashimoto׳s thyroiditis, comprise the most common autoimmune diseases in humans. Both have the production of anti-thyroid antibody as an important aspect and both are much more prevalent in females, being at least 10 times more common than in males. Using these two clues, a hypothesis for the initiation of thyroid autoimmunity is proposed that helps to make the case that the thyroid is one of the most sensitive sites for autoimmunity and helps account for the prevalence and the observed sex differences in AITDs and associated diseases, such as type 1 diabetes and Latent Autoimmune Diabetes in Adults (LADA). The primary mechanisms proposed involve the underlying state of inflammation as a result of the adipokines, especially leptin, TNF-α, and IL-6, and the receptors able to recognize pathogen-associated molecular patterns (PAMP׳s) and damage-associated molecular patterns (DAMP׳s) through Toll-like receptors (TLR) and others receptors present on thyrocytes. The adipokines are produced by adipose tissue, but have hormone-like and immune modulating properties. As the levels of leptin are significantly higher in females, an explanation for the sex difference in thyroid autoimmunity emerges. The ability of the thyrocytes to participate in innate immunity through the TLR provides an adjuvant-like signal and allows for the action of other agents, such as environmental factors, viruses, bacteria, and even stress to provide the initiation step to break tolerance to thyroid self-antigens. Seeing the thyroid as one of the most sensitive sites for autoimmunity, means that for many autoimmune disorders, if autoimmunity is present, it is likely to also be present in the thyroid - and that that condition in the thyroid was probably earlier. The evidence is seen in multiple autoimmune syndrome.

Keywords: Adipokines; Graves׳ disease; Hashimoto׳s thyroiditis; Leptin; PAMP׳s.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adipokines / blood
  • Animals
  • Autoantibodies / immunology
  • Autoantigens / immunology
  • Autoimmunity / immunology*
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 1 / immunology
  • Female
  • Graves Disease / immunology*
  • Hashimoto Disease / immunology*
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Innate
  • Inflammation / immunology
  • Leptin / blood
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Prevalence
  • Receptors, Pattern Recognition
  • Sex Factors*
  • Thyroid Gland / immunology*


  • Adipokines
  • Autoantibodies
  • Autoantigens
  • Leptin
  • Receptors, Pattern Recognition