To understand and develop strategies to intervene in autoimmune responses to myelin proteolipid protein (PLP), encephalitogenic epitopes must be identified. To expedite the identification of potentially immunogenic and encephalitogenic epitopes of PLP, overlapping synthetic 20-mer PLP peptides covering the whole PLP molecule were screened for their ability to bind to purified mouse I-Ad, I-Ak, and I-As molecules. The peptides that bound to the I-A molecules were tested for their ability to induce immune responses in corresponding inbred mouse strains. Immunogenic peptides were then tested for their ability to induce experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis. Moderate to strong I-A binding was essential for development of immune responses, but immunogenicity was not sufficient for encephalitogenicity. Rather, encephalitogenic epitopes clustered in three regions of the molecule, namely within residues 40-70, 100-119, and 178-209. These were also the regions of the PLP that showed the greatest promiscuity in binding to I-A molecules. Except for PLP 139-151, which is an encephalitogenic determinant in mice expressing I-As, all encephalitogenic epitopes of PLP previously identified, regardless of their MHC class II restriction, are located within or adjacent to these epitope clusters. None of the encephalitogenic epitopes occur in regions of the molecule that have a high degree of homology with the neuronal M6a protein, a member of the DM20/PLP superfamily. Atypical clinical and histologic patterns of experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis were observed in some strains of mice sensitized with certain PLP peptides and may reflect induction of T cells with different disease-inducing potentials.

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