Atherosclerosis is an inflammatory-fibrotic response to accumulation of cholesterol in the artery wall. In hypercholesterolemia, low density lipoproteins (LDL) accumulate and are oxidized to proinflammatory compounds in the arterial intima, leading to activation of endothelial cells, macrophages, and T lymphocytes. We have studied immune cell activation and the autoimmune response to oxidized LDL in atherosclerotic apo E-knockout mice. Autoantibodies to oxidized LDL exhibited subclass specificities indicative of T cell help, and the increase in antibody titers in peripheral blood was associated with increased numbers of cytokine-expressing T cells in the spleen. In addition to T cell-dependent antibodies, IgM antibodies to oxidized LDL were also increased in apo E-knockout mice. This suggests that both T cell-dependent and T cell-independent epitopes may be present on oxidized LDL. In moderate hypercholesterolemia, IgG antibodies were largely of the IgG2a isotype, suggesting that T cell help was provided by proinflammatory T helper (Th) 1 cells, which are prominent components of atherosclerotic lesions. In severe hypercholesterolemia induced by cholesterol feeding of apo E-knockout mice, a switch to Th2-dependent help was evident. It was associated with a loss of IFN-gamma-producing Th1 cells in the spleen, whereas IL-4-producing Th2 cells were more resistant to hypercholesterolemia. IFN-gamma but not IL-4 mRNA was detected in atherosclerotic lesions of moderately hypercholesterolemic apo E-knockout mice, but IL-4 mRNA appeared in the lesions when mice were made severely hypercholesterolemic by cholesterol feeding. These data show that IFN-gamma-producing Th1 cells infiltrate atherosclerotic lesions and provide T cell help for autoimmune responses to oxidized LDL in apo E-knockout mice. However, severe hypercholesterolemia is associated with a switch from Th1 to Th2, which results not only in the formation of IgG1 autoantibodies to oxidized LDL, but also in the appearance of Th2-type cytokines in the atherosclerotic lesions. Since the two subsets of T cells counteract each other, this switch may have important consequences for the inflammatory/immune process in atherosclerosis.