A potential immunoregulatory function has recently been attributed to the discrete subset of major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I-restricted TCR-alpha beta mature thymocytes expressing an unusual V beta 8-biased T cell receptor repertoire. This T cell subset which also selectively express the CD44 marker is the main IL-4 producer in the thymus. Nonobese diabetic (NOD) mice were found to have a marked deficit in the number and functional capacity of CD44+ TCR-alpha beta+ thymocytes from as early as 3 weeks of age. The deficiency in IL-4 production was completely corrected after incubation with interleukin-7 (IL-7), a selective growth factor for CD44+ TCR-alpha beta+ mature thymocytes. This abnormality in T cell differentiation could explain the Th2 functional deficiency that may be a key element in the emergence of Th1-driven autoimmune disease in NOD mice.