This study examines the effects of chronic alcohol consumption on thymic apoptosis with or without pretreatment with E. coli lipopolysaccharide (LPS). Apoptotic cell death of thymocytes was monitored by DNA fragments in gel electrophoresis and the appearance of apoptotic cells by flow cytometry. Changes in mitochondrial membrane potential (MMP), as indicated by 3,3'-dihexyloxacarbocyanine iodide [DiOC6(3)] uptake, and hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) production as indicated by oxidation of 2',7'-dichlorofluresin diacetate (DCFH-DA), were used to assess altered mitochondrial function. Glutathione levels were also determined to obtain information concerning alterations in the antioxidant potential in the cells. Male Sprague-Dawley rats, fed a nutritionally adequate liquid diet for 8-9 weeks, were divided in four groups: 1) saline-injected, diet controls; 2) LPS-injected, diet controls; 3) saline-injected, alcohol-consuming; and 4) LPS-injected, alcohol-consuming animals. LPS (0.5 mg/kg in 4 ml saline) or saline (4 ml) was continuously infused i.v. for 12 h before the experiments. The results showed that the weight and cell numbers of thymus from the chronic alcoholic rats were significantly less than values found in diet controls. Administration of LPS aggravated thymic apoptosis, as indicated by the presence of significant DNA fragments in gel electrophoresis and increased rate of apoptotic cells in flow cytometry. The alcohol-induced apoptotic changes were also accompanied by decreased MMP, indicating impaired mitochondrial function. Although H2O2 production by the total thymocyte population did not show marked changes among the experimental groups, the subpopulation of thymocytes exhibiting low H2O2 production was increased markedly in the LPS-treated groups. Ethanol consumption or LPS treatment decreased total glutathione concentration in the thymocytes. In summary, 1) chronic administration of alcohol induces atrophy of the thymus gland; 2) apoptosis is a major factor in thymic atrophy under these conditions; 3) chronic alcohol consumption is accompanied by alterations in mitochondrial function of the thymocytes, as indicated by decreased MMP and an increase in the low H2O2-producing cell subpopulation; 4) chronic alcohol abuse may impair intracellular defense mechanisms as reflected by the depletion of the intracellular antioxidant, glutathione; and 5) administration of LPS further enhances thymic apoptosis in chronic alcohol-consuming rats, suggesting that the dual insults of infection and chronic alcoholism exaggerate in vivo immunosuppression.