Infection of inbred mice with Borrelia burgdorferi results in strain-specific variation in the severity of pathogen-induced arthritis: BALB/c mice develop only mild disease whereas C3H/HeJ mice develop severe arthritis. The immunologic basis for varying host susceptibility has yet to be defined. We modified experimental Lyme disease to facilitate measurement of antigen-specific cytokine production in resistant and susceptible mice. The analysis revealed highly polarized lymphokine patterns directly linked to differing disease outcomes. Among the inbred strains of mice challenged with B. burgdorferi, production of interleukin 4 (IL-4) correlated to resistance whereas production of interferon gamma (IFN-gamma) correlated to susceptibility. We also demonstrate that production of IL-4 or IFN-gamma regulates the severity of arthritis after infection. Neutralization of IL-4 in resistant BALB/c mice resulted in more severe arthritis whereas neutralization of IFN-gamma in susceptible C3H/HeJ mice attenuated the severity of disease. These results suggest a primary relationship between T helper cell phenotype and the genetic basis for susceptibility to experimental Lyme borreliosis.