Cyclosporin A (CsA) is a well-known immunosuppressive agent that modulates immune tolerance in many ways. CsA can give rise to a state of long-term nonimmunosuppressed transplantation tolerance, but it can also aggravate autoimmune diseases, and provoke specific forms of autoimmunity. These effects, which are often paradoxical, remain largely unexplained. In this study, we investigated the effects of CsA on superantigen (superAg)-reactive peripheral T cells. The intravenous injection of either staphylococcal enterotoxin B (SEB), or Mls-1a cells into Mls-1b recipients, causes long-term in vitro nonresponsiveness (anergy) and partial elimination of the peripheral T cell receptor (TCR) V beta 8+/CD4+ and -V beta 6+/CD4+ T cell subsets, respectively. We report that CsA markedly enhances the peripheral elimination of SEB- and Mls-1a-reactive T cells such that up to 90% of the targeted CD4+/V beta subpopulations are deleted. The degree of deletion depends on the dose and the schedule of CsA administration, and the number of superAg injections. In situations where the extent of deletion is only moderate, we find that the remaining superAg-reactive T cells fail to develop anergy, unlike the T cells of control superAg-immunized mice. Higher doses of CsA are required to enhance T cell deletion (greater than or equal to 25 mg/kg/d, i.p.) than to impair anergy induction (greater than or equal to 6.25 mg/kg/d, i.p.). In view of these results, it appears that the degree of tolerance in CsA/superAg-treated mice depends on the balance between these opposing effects, i.e., enhancement of peripheral elimination versus the abrogation of anergy. The possibility of enhancing or preventing immune tolerance with a drug may have important clinical implications.