The immunobiology of autoimmune encephalitides

J Autoimmun. 2019 Nov:104:102339. doi: 10.1016/j.jaut.2019.102339. Epub 2019 Oct 11.


Autoimmune encephalitides, with an estimated incidence of 1.5 per million population per year, although described only 15 years ago, have already had a remarkable impact in neurology and paved the field to autoimmune neuropsychiatry. Many patients traditionally presented with aberrant behavior, especially of acute or subacute onset, and treated with anti-psychotic therapies, turn out to have a CNS autoimmune disease with pathogenic autoantibodies against synaptic antigens responding to immunotherapies. The review describes the clinical spectrum of these disorders, and the pathogenetic role of key autoantibodies directed against: a) cell surface synaptic antigens and receptors, including NMDAR, GABAa, GABAb, AMPA and glycine receptors; b) channels such as AQP4 water-permeable channel or voltage-gated potassium channels; c) proteins that stabilize voltage-gated potassium channel complex into the membrane, like the LGI1 and CASPR2; and d) enzymes that catalyze the formation of neurotransmitters such as Glutamic Acid Decarboxylase (GAD). These antibodies, effectively target excitatory or inhibitory synapses in the limbic system, basal ganglia or brainstem altering synaptic function and resulting in uncontrolled neurological excitability disorder clinically manifested with psychosis, agitation, behavioral alterations, depression, sleep disturbances, seizure-like phenomena, movement disorders such as ataxia, chorea and dystonia, memory changes or coma. Some of the identified triggering factors include: viruses, especially herpes simplex, accounting for the majority of relapses occurring after viral encephalitis, which respond to immunotherapy rather than antiviral agents; tumors especially teratoma, SCLC and thymomas; and biological cancer therapies (immune-check-point inhibitors). As anti-synaptic antibodies persist after viral infections or tumor removal, augmentation of autoreactive B cells which release autoantigens to draining lymph nodes, molecular mimicry and infection-induced bystander immune activation products play a role in autoimmunization process or perpetuating autoimmune neuroinflammation. The review stresses the importance of early detection, clinical recognition, proper antibody testing and early therapy initiation as these disorders, regardless of a known or not trigger, are potentially treatable responding to systemic immunotherapy with intravenous steroids, IVIg, rituximab or even bortezomid.

Keywords: Autoantibodies; Autoimmune neuropsychiatry; Autoimmunity; Encephalitis; Immunotherapy; Synapses.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Autoantibodies / immunology
  • Bortezomib / therapeutic use*
  • Encephalitis / epidemiology
  • Encephalitis / immunology*
  • Encephalitis / pathology
  • Encephalitis / therapy*
  • Hashimoto Disease / epidemiology
  • Hashimoto Disease / immunology*
  • Hashimoto Disease / pathology
  • Hashimoto Disease / therapy*
  • Humans
  • Immunoglobulins, Intravenous / therapeutic use*
  • Immunotherapy*
  • Incidence
  • Rituximab / therapeutic use*
  • Steroids / therapeutic use*
  • Synapses / immunology


  • Autoantibodies
  • Immunoglobulins, Intravenous
  • Steroids
  • Rituximab
  • Bortezomib

Supplementary concepts

  • Hashimoto's encephalitis