To study whether nervous tissue trauma provokes myelin antigen autoreactive T and B cell responses in humans we examined consecutive blood samples from 7 patients with polyneuropathy undergoing diagnostic sural nerve biopsy and 8 control patients undergoing other types of minor surgery. The antigen-specific T cells were assessed by enumerating cells secreting interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma) in response to the myelin components P0, P2, myelin basic protein (MBP) and myelin associated glycoprotein (MAG), and to 4 selected MBP peptides. B cell mediated immunity was assessed by counting numbers of cells secreting antibodies directed against the myelin proteins. On day 7 after biopsy, there were 3-10-fold increased numbers of T and B cells reactive with P0, P2, MBP and MAG in blood of polyneuropathy patients compared to controls, while levels of cells recognizing purified protein derivate or responding to phytohemagglutinin (PHA) did not differ significantly. Comparison of prebiopsy levels on day 0 with post-biopsy levels on day 7 in the polyneuropathy patients revealed a significant increase in T cells recognizing P0, P2 and MAG, and in B cells secreting IgG antibodies against P0 and P2. On day 14 after nerve biopsy these differences were no longer seen. We suggest that in patients with polyneuropathy, sural nerve biopsy with the ensuing wallerian degeneration and myelin breakdown causes transiently increased levels of circulating myelin autoreactive T and B cells. It remains to be determined if this has a physiological role in nerve trauma responses and/or affects the clinicopathological course of the peripheral neuropathy.