To study the role of anterior uveal mast cells in experimental autoimmune uveitis (EAU), the mast cells in the iris and ciliary body of Lewis rats, Brown Norway (BN) rats, and their F1 hybrids (LBNF1) were quantitated in normal rats and during the induction period of EAU. The mean baseline mast cell number was 68.9 +/- 10.8 per anterior uvea for Lewis rats, 0.3 +/- 0.2 for BN rats, and 4.6 +/- 0.6 for LBNF1 rats. Detectable mast cells in the anterior uvea of S-Ag-immunized Lewis rats decreased to 60% of control at 6 days postimmunization, recovered to 80% at 10 days, and dropped again to 16% at 13 days, with disease onset around 14 days. In Lewis rats that were adoptively transferred with a uveitogenic T-lymphocyte line, a profound drop in anterior uveal mast cell numbers occurred in the eyes with early signs of EAU, 3 days after the transfer. The decrease in detectable mast cells is consistent with mast cell degranulation. The data suggest that anterior mast cells participate in the immunopathogenesis of EAU and may influence the genetic susceptibility to EAU.