Virally infected neurons avoid destruction by cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTLs) by failing to express major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I molecules. Like neurons in vivo and in primary culture, the OBL21 neuronal cell line expressed barely detectable levels of MHC class I molecules. This correlated with very low levels of mRNAs for the MHC class I heavy chains (alpha C). OBL21 cells also fail to provide MHC class I molecules with the peptides necessary for their efficient assembly and transport to the cell surface. This function can be restored by treatment with interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma). The mRNA for peptide transporters HAM1 and HAM2 was not detectable in OBL21 neuronal cells, but was induced by IFN-gamma treatment. Hence, the ability of neurons to evade CTL-mediated killing results from expression at low levels of the MHC class I alpha C, the peptide transporters HAM1 and HAM2, and possibly other genes of the peptide-loading machinery.