Rat strains vary in their susceptibility to experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE) and in many cases, factors other than MHC antigens are thought to play a role in this. We found that PVG rats, which have a very low susceptibility to EAE, were rendered highly susceptible to clinical disease when treated with N-methylarginine (NMA) an inhibitor of nitric oxide synthase (NOS). The clinical course of the ensuing disease in NMA-treated PVG rats was in most cases fulminating in nature and accompanied by some mortality. Following immunisation with myelin basic protein (MBP)-complete Freund's adjuvant (CFA), PVG rats developed higher serum levels of the surrogate markers of nitric oxide production, reactive nitrogen intermediates (RNI; nitrite and nitrate), than did their Lewis counterparts. This in vivo finding was reflected in vitro, where the levels of RNI produced in 24, 48 and 72 h IFN-gamma-stimulated spleen cell cultures for PVG rats were significantly higher than those for Lewis rats. A mechanism by which increased NO production might protect PVG rats against clinical EAE was suggested by the finding that lymph node cells, isolated from NMA-treated MBP-immunised PVG rats, proliferated in response to MBP at a rate approximately 3 x greater than those from MBP-immunised, saline treated rats. Thus, the greater number of MBP-specific T cells generated in the NOS inhibitor-treated vs. untreated rats could account for their increased susceptibility to developing clinical EAE. The findings in this study suggest that NO plays a role in protecting PVG rats against developing EAE.