Premature ovarian failure (POF) is defined as a syndrome characterized by menopause before the age of 40 yr. The patients suffer from anovulation and hypoestrogenism. Approximately 1% of women will experience menopause before the age of 40 yr. POF is a heterogeneous disorder with a multicausal pathogenesis involving chromosomal, genetic, enzymatic, infectious, and iatrogenic causes. There remains, however, a group of POF patients without a known etiology, the so-called "idiopathic" form. An autoimmune etiology is hypothesized for the POF cases with a concomitant Addison's disease and/or oophoritis. It is concluded in this review that POF in association with adrenal autoimmunity and/or Addison's disease (2-10% of the idiopathic POF patients) is indeed an autoimmune disease. The following evidence warrants this view: 1) The presence of autoantibodies to steroid-producing cells in these patients; 2) The characterization of shared autoantigens between adrenal and ovarian steroid-producing cells; 3) The histological picture of the ovaries of such cases (lymphoplasmacellular infiltrate around steroid-producing cells); 4) The existence of various autoimmune animal models for this syndrome, which underlines the autoimmune nature of the disease. There is some circumstantial evidence for an autoimmune pathogenesis in idiopathic POF patients in the absence of adrenal autoimmunity or Addison's disease. Arguments in support of this are: 1) The presence of cellular immune abnormalities in this POF patient group reminiscent of endocrine autoimmune diseases such as IDDM, Graves' disease, and Addison's disease; 2) The more than normal association with IDDM and myasthenia gravis. Data on the presence of various ovarian autoantibodies and anti-receptor antibodies in these patients are, however, inconclusive and need further evaluation. A strong argument against an autoimmune pathogenesis of POF in these patients is the nearly absent histological confirmation (the presence of an oophoritis) in these cases (< 3%). However, in animal models using ZP immunization, similar follicular depletion and fibrosis (as in the POF women) can be detected. Accepting the concept that POF is a heterogenous disorder in which some of the idiopathic forms are based on an abnormal self-recognition by the immune system will lead to new approaches in the treatment of infertility of these patients. There are already a few reports on a successful ovulation-inducing treatment of selected POF patients (those with other autoimmune phenomena) with immunomodulating therapies, such as high dosages of corticosteroids (288-292).

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Endocrine Reviews
Erasmus MC: University Medical Center Rotterdam

Schoemaker, J., Drexhage, H., & Hoek, A. (1997). Premature ovarian failure and ovarian autoimmunity. Endocrine Reviews. Retrieved from