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Aire-deficient mice provide a model of corneal and lacrimal gland neuropathy in Sjögren's syndrome.


Sjögren's syndrome (SS) is a chronic, autoimmune exocrinopathy that leads to severe dryness of the mouth and eyes. Exocrine function is highly regulated by neuronal mechanisms but little is known about the link between chronic inflammation, innervation and altered exocrine function in the diseased eyes and exocrine glands of SS patients. To gain a better understanding of neuronal regulation in the immunopathogenesis of autoimmune exocrinopathy, we profiled a mouse model of spontaneous, autoimmune exocrinopathy that possess key characteristics of peripheral neuropathy experienced by SS patients. Mice deficient in the autoimmune regulator (Aire) gene developed spontaneous, CD4+ T cell-mediated exocrinopathy and aqueous-deficient dry eye that were associated with loss of nerves innervating the cornea and lacrimal gland. Changes in innervation and tear secretion were accompanied by increased proliferation of corneal epithelial basal cells, limbal expansion of KRT19-positive progenitor cells, increased vascularization of the peripheral cornea and reduced nerve function in the lacrimal gland. In addition, we found extensive loss of MIST1+ secretory acinar cells in the Aire -/- lacrimal gland suggesting that acinar cells are a primary target of the disease, Finally, topical application of ophthalmic steroid effectively restored corneal innervation in Aire -/- mice thereby functionally linking nerve loss with local inflammation in the aqueous-deficient dry eye. These data provide important insight regarding the relationship between chronic inflammation and neuropathic changes in autoimmune-mediated dry eye. Peripheral neuropathies characteristic of SS appear to be tightly linked with the underlying immunopathological mechanism and Aire -/- mice provide an excellent tool to explore the interplay between SS-associated immunopathology and peripheral neuropathy.

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