The efficacy and mechanism of immunosuppression against experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE) by oral low-dose administration of myelin basic protein (MBP) conjugated to cholera toxin B subunit (CTB) were investigated in Lewis rats immunized with MBP together with complete Freund's adjuvant 4 days before the start of treatment. Oral treatment with CTB-MBP conjugate gave almost complete protection against disease, an effect that was totally abrogated by including a low dose of cholera holotoxin (CT). The protection by CTB-MBP was associated with a dramatic reduction in the number of leukocytes staining for CD4, CD8, IL-2R or MHC class II in the spinal cord as examined by immunohistochemistry. The mRNA expressions of T(h)1 cytokines IFN-gamma, IL-12 and tumor necrosis factor-alpha, as well as of chemokines monocyte chemotactic protein (MCP)-1 and RANTES in the spinal cord were also reduced by 76-94%, as assessed by in situ hybridization. In contrast, transforming growth factor (TGF)-beta mRNA-expressing cells were strongly increased in the spinal cord from animals treated orally with the CTB-MBP conjugate. In the draining peripheral lymph nodes, the number of MBP-specific TGF-beta mRNA-expressing cells was also increased, whereas there was a decrease in cells expressing T(h)1 or T(h)2 cytokine mRNA. Protection against EAE could be transferred by injection of cells from the mesenteric lymph nodes of animals fed with CTB-MBP into naive animals exposed to encephalitogenic T cells. The results indicate that the protective anti-inflammatory effect by oral treatment with CTB-MBP conjugate is, to a large extent, due to the induction of TGF-beta-secreting suppressive-regulatory T cells and to local down-regulation of MCP-1 and RANTES in the spinal cord.