During the differentiation of thymocytes to mature T cells the processes of positive and negative selection result in signals that either protect thymocytes from cell death, or delete, through apoptosis, thymocytes with self-reactive T cell receptors (TCR). Glucocorticoids have been shown to induce thymocyte apoptosis and are produced within the thymic microenvironment. Furthermore, steroid-induced apoptosis of thymocytes has been suggested as a potential mechanism for removal of nonselected thymocytes. In this report, we demonstrate that thymocytes can be rescued from glucocorticoid-induced apoptosis by incubation with cells that express high levels of B7-1 or B7-2. In addition, the ability to be rescued by B7-1 and/or B7-2 can precede expression of the TCR. We demonstrate that CD3(+)-depleted or CD3+/ TCR-beta(+)-doubly depleted thymocytes can be rescued from glucocorticoid-induced apoptosis through the interaction of CD28 or CTLA-4 on thymocytes with cells bearing high levels of B7-1 or B7-2. Furthermore, these transfected cells are major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class II negative and, while they may express MHC class I, there is no preferential rescue of CD8+ thymocytes in the presence of glucocorticoids. Together, these data suggest that the rescue of thymocytes from glucocorticoids can be independent of the TCR. We also demonstrate that, in addition to CD28, CTLA-4 is expressed on thymocytes, suggesting that rescue from glucocorticoid-induced cell death can be mediated by both CD28 and CTLA-4. A CTLA-4Ig fusion protein which binds to both B7-1 and B7-2 was shown to completely block the rescue of thymocytes from glucocorticoid-induced cell death. Therefore, we conclude that interactions between B7-1/B7-2 and CD28/CTLA-4 are sufficient and necessary for rescue of thymocytes from glucocorticoid-induced cell death.