Prospects for specific immune intervention in T cell-mediated autoimmune disease via anti-idiotypic regulation depend on the degree of diversity of the responder cell antigen receptor repertoire. A highly heterogenous response against self epitopes offers little chance for such regulation. We report here that the Lewis rat autoimmune disease experimental allergic encephalomyelitis, generally considered to be a model of human multiple sclerosis, is caused by T cells that use a limited set of TCR V genes. We have cloned the rat TCR alpha and beta chain cDNAs from the Lewis rat x mouse T cell hybridoma 510, which retains the rat specificity for the encephalitogenic determinant of myelin basic protein (MBP). Using Northern blot analysis of T cell RNA with the cloned V region probes, we have found a specific, and near perfect, correlation between expression of TCR message hybridizing to the V alpha 510 and VB510 probes and specificity for the encephalitogenic determinant of MBP in both T cell hybridomas and encephalitogenic T cell clones. This restricted V gene usage provides a basis for observed idiotypic regulation of auto-reactive T cells, and possible therapy for autoimmune disease. A curious and unexplained observation is that the Lewis rat V alpha/V beta combination that dominates the encephalitogenic response to the 68-88 peptide of MBP is precisely the same V alpha/V beta combination used by the B10.PL mouse response to the encephalitogenic response to the 1-9 peptide of MBP.