BACKGROUND Cell-mediated autoimmunity has been strongly implicated in the pathogenesis of viral myocarditis. METHODS AND RESULTS Using a murine model of acute myocarditis caused by coxsackievirus B3, we analyzed the phenotypes and morphology of the infiltrating cells in the hearts by immunofluorescence and electron microscopy. We also examined the expression of a cytolytic factor, perforin, in the infiltrating cells by immunoperoxidase and in situ hybridization. We found that the dominant population of the infiltrating cells were asialo GM1 positive, were negative for T-cell markers, and had electron-dense cytoplasmic granules, which is consistent with a morphology of large granular lymphocytes. Perforin was found in the cytoplasmic granules of the infiltrating cells expressing perforin messenger RNA. These findings provide for the first time the direct evidence that the first wave of cell infiltration in hearts mainly consists of killer cells and strongly suggests that perforin plays, in part, an important role in myocardial cell damage involved in acute viral myocarditis. T-helper cells and cytotoxic T lymphocytes made up the second wave of cell infiltration. CONCLUSIONS As we previously reported, the expression of major histocompatibility complex class I antigen on cardiac myocytes induced by the infiltrating cells, such as killer cells, may facilitate the interaction between cardiac myocytes and cytotoxic T lymphocytes, and may lead to further myocardial cell damage in a later phase.