Intracerebral infection of susceptible strains of mice with Theiler's virus, a picornavirus, results in central nervous system demyelination, which is similar to multiple sclerosis. Immunogenetic experiments indicate that the MHC (H-2) and, in particular, the D region that controls class I-restricted immune responses, is an important determinant to development of demyelination. We tested whether disruption of beta 2-microglobulin (beta 2-m) would abrogate resistance to demyelinating disease normally observed in H-2b mice. All (C57BI/6 x 129)F3 mice transgenic for homozygous beta 2-m gene disruption (-/-) developed chronic demyelination after Theiler's murine encephalomyelitis virus infection, whereas none of the infected littermates with normal expression of class I MHC (beta 2-m, +/+) developed demyelination. Demyelinated lesions showed class II MHC expression, macrophages, and TNF but no class I MHC expression or CD8+ T cells. No correlation was observed between development of demyelination and delayed-type hypersensitivity responses to virus Ag. Despite the presence of demyelinating lesions, none of the infected beta 2-m (-/-) mice developed neurologic deficits. Infectious virus and virus Ag persisted in the central nervous systems of infected beta 2-m (-/-) mice but not in beta 2-m (+/+) mice. These experiments support the hypothesis that a class I immune response mediated by CD8+ T cells is important in resistance to Theiler's murine encephalomyelitis virus-induced demyelination. Development of chronic neurologic deficits as observed in immunocompetent susceptible strains of mice may be dependent on the presence of class I MHC and CD8+ T cells.