CD8+ as well as CD4+ T cells and macrophages are of crucial importance for the pathogenesis of Borna disease in rats. This virus-induced immunopathological disease of the brain is characterized by neurological symptoms in the acute phase and chronic debility associated with severe loss of brain tissue in the late stage. We demonstrate here the cytotoxic activity of T lymphocytes in the brain of intracerebrally infected rats. T cells isolated from the brain of infected rats lyse major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I-bearing target cells in the absence of MHC class II. Borna disease virus (BDV)-infected syngeneic skin cells and astrocytes, the latter one of the relevant target cells in vivo, were significantly lysed whereas infected allogeneic target cells were not. Most relevant to the in vivo situation, primary brain cell cultures propagated from the hippocampus of BDV-infected rats containing considerable numbers of neurons were lysed in vitro. Blocking experiments using antibodies directed against MHC class I antigen provided further evidence for the presence and activity of classical cytotoxic T lymphocytes. Antibodies against MHC class II antigen did not influence lysis of skin target cells but had an effect on lysis of astrocytes at late time points. Lymphocytes isolated from spleen, peripheral blood, or lymph nodes did not show cytotoxic activity. These results verify, on the cellular level, earlier findings that strongly suggest the involvement of CD8+ T cells in brain cell lesions, resulting in brain atrophy long after infection of rats with BDV. This is further evidenced by the presence of CD8+ T cells in direct proximity to neuronal cell lesions. Interestingly, the cytolytic capacity, demonstrated in vitro and strongly correlated to organ destruction, does not result in elimination of the virus but the virus persists in the central nervous system.