The chemokines RANTES, macrophage inflammatory protein (MIP)-1 alpha and MIP-1 beta are members of the beta-family of chemokines and potent chemoattractants for lymphocytes and monocytes. To investigate the factors which regulate lymphocyte traffic in experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE), we studied, by in situ hybridization analysis, the kinetics of mRNA expression and the potent cellular sources of RANTES, MIP-1 alpha and MIP-1 beta in the central nervous system (CNS) during the course of EAE. RANTES-positive cells appeared in the subarachnoid space and infiltrated the subpial region at around day 10, increased to a peak at days 12-13 and then decreased following the resolution of the acute phase of EAE, though elevated RANTES message expressions still remained on chronic subclinical stage. Most of RANTES positive cells were identified as T-lymphocytes located mainly around blood vessels, by combined studies of in situ hybridization and immunohistochemistry. The remainder of the RANTES-positive cells were astrocytes and macrophages/microglia. MIP-1 alpha and MIP-1 beta mRNA-positive cells appeared around day 10, increased further on days 12-13 and then gradually decreased. Most of the MIP-1 alpha- and MIP-1 beta-positive mononuclear cells were located around blood vessels. The kinetics of RANTES, MIP-1 alpha and MIP-1 beta expression paralleled those of the recruitment of infiltrating inflammatory cells and disease severity. Our observations support the possibility that chemokine production by T-cells, macrophages and astrocytes lead to the infiltration of inflammatory cells into the CNS parenchyma during the acute phase of EAE.