The efficiency of cloned class I MHC restricted CTL specific for the nucleoprotein or glycoprotein of lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus in either mediating virus clearance or immunopathologic disease in mice during acute infection was quantitated. Cloned CTL specific for either an internal (nucleoprotein) or surface (glycoprotein) protein of lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus, when administered intracerebrally 5 days after the initiation of infection induced fatal immunopathology, indicating that both internal and surface viral Ag play a role in immune mediated disease in vivo. Dose-response analysis indicated that only 10(2) to 10(3) cloned CTL injected intracerebrally were required to induce mortality in 50% of inoculated syngeneic mice. Thus relatively few virus-specific CTL are required to induce an acute immunopathologic disease in the central nervous system. In contrast, if cloned CTL are adoptively transferred at the time of initiation of viral infection they provide protection as demonstrated by their ability to eliminate virus from the brain and thus terminate the acute infection.