Theiler's murine encephalomyelitis virus (TMEV) gives rise to a biphasic disease of the central nervous system (CNS) following intracranial inoculation of susceptible strains of mice. The early phase, during the first month, resembles poliomyelitis and in the late phase the mice suffer from inflammatory demyelination reminiscent of multiple sclerosis. In order to investigate the role of helper T cells in the acute and chronic phases of the disease we depleted mice of their L3T4 T cells in vivo with rat monoclonal antibodies, prior to infection and prior to the onset of clinical signs of demyelination. Mice depleted of their helper cells failed to produce antibodies to TMEV and consequently were unable to clear virus from the CNS and died within the first month of infection. Depletion of T cells before the demyelinating phase of the disease resulted in a marked decrease in the incidence of disease from 77% of the immunocompetent animals with clinical signs of paralysis to 36%. Immunocompetent TMEV-infected mice also developed antibodies against myelin suggesting that autoimmune mechanisms may play a role in TMEV-induced demyelination.