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Neuromyelitis optica spectrum disorders (NMOSDs) are caused by immunoglobulin G (IgG) autoantibodies directed against the water channel aquaporin-4 (AQP4). In NMOSDs, discrete clinical relapses lead to disability and are robustly prevented by the anti-CD20 therapeutic rituximab; however, its mechanism of action in autoantibody-mediated disorders remains poorly understood. We hypothesized that AQP4-IgG production in germinal centers (GCs) was a core feature of NMOSDs and could be terminated by rituximab. To investigate this directly, deep cervical lymph node (dCLN) aspirates (n = 36) and blood (n = 406) were studied in a total of 63 NMOSD patients. Clinical relapses were associated with AQP4-IgM generation or shifts in AQP4-IgG subclasses (odds ratio = 6.0; range of 3.3 to 10.8; P < 0.0001), features consistent with GC activity. From seven dCLN aspirates of patients not administered rituximab, AQP4-IgGs were detected alongside specific intranodal synthesis of AQP4-IgG. AQP4-reactive B cells were isolated from unmutated naive and mutated memory populations in both blood and dCLNs. After rituximab administration, fewer clinical relapses (annual relapse rate of 0.79 to 0; P < 0.001) were accompanied by marked reductions in both AQP4-IgG (fourfold; P = 0.004) and intranodal B cells (430-fold; P < 0.0001) from 11 dCLNs. Our findings implicate ongoing GC activity as a rituximab-sensitive driver of AQP4 antibody production. They may explain rituximab’s clinical efficacy in several autoantibody-mediated diseases and highlight the potential value of direct GC measurements across autoimmune conditions.

Original publication




Journal article


Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A

Publication Date





aquaporin, autoimmunity, cervical lymph nodes, neuromyelitis optica, rituximab, Aquaporin 4, Autoantibodies, Germinal Center, Humans, Immunologic Factors, Lymph Nodes, Neuromyelitis Optica, Rituximab