Experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE), an experimental model for the study of multiple sclerosis, is an autoimmune disease of the central nervous system that can be induced in a number of species by immunization with myelin basic protein (MBP). MBP-reactive CD4+ T cells, predominantly expressing the V beta 8.2 T cell receptor (TCR), migrate from the peripheral lymphoid organs and initiate the inflammatory response in the brain. We have previously shown that a single intrathymic injection of MBP or its major encephalitogenic peptide (p71-90), but not a nonencephalitogenic peptide (p21-40), induces antigen-specific systemic tolerance and inhibits the induction of EAE in Lewis rats. In this study, we investigated the mechanisms of induction and maintenance of acquired thymic tolerance in this model. First, we investigated which thymic cell is responsible for "induction" of systemic tolerance. Thymic dendritic-enriched cells, isolated by plastic adherence, when incubated in vitro with p71-90 and injected intravenously into Lewis rats, were capable of preventing the development of EAE, but his protection was lost in thymectomized recipients. In addition, intravenous injection of thymic dendritic cells isolated from animals that had been previously injected intrathymically with p71-90 but not p21-40 also prevented the development of EAE. Second, to determine the "effector" mechanisms involved in acquired thymic tolerance, we compared TCR expression in the brains of animals with actively induced EAE with TCR expression in animals that received intrathymic injection of p71-90 or p21-40. Using a semiquantitative reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) technique, we found increased expression of CD4 and V beta 8.2 message in brains of immunized animals compared with those of naive animals. In animals intrathymically injected with p71-90 but not p21-40, CD4 and V beta 8.2 transcript levels were significantly reduced compared with immunized controls. Immunohistologic studies of brain tissue and spleens with specific V beta 8.2 and control V beta 10 monoclonal antibodies confirmed these observations in vivo. These findings, taken together with recent data demonstrating that activated T cells circulate through the thymus, suggest that interaction of thymic dendritic cells with specific TCR of activated peripheral T cells can lead to inactivation of these antigen-specific cells and confirm the role of V beta 8.2-expressing T cells in EAE.