Sustained antibody-mediated inhibition of tumor necrosis factor (TNF) activity offers protection against Type I (insulin-dependent) diabetes mellitus in non-obese diabetic (NOD) mice. The mechanism of this effect, however, has remained obscure: TNFalpha might be required for the development of specific immune responses to islet antigens or it could directly participate in destruction of beta cells. In this study, autoimmune destruction of beta cells was initiated in NOD-severe combined immunodeficient (scid) mice by transfer of NOD splenic T-cells to induce diabetes. The blockade of TNFalpha activity was achieved during a narrow window of time after transfer. Transient inhibition of TNFalpha greatly reduced the number of islet lymphocytes and the incidence of diabetes in recipients of prediabetic NOD spleen cells. Protection extended beyond the interval of effective TNF blockade. Furthermore, the protective effect was only observed if cells were obtained from 6-week-old donors. The suppression of autoimmunity was reversible in the context of adoptive transfer as indicated by the transfer of splenocytes from the primary recipient to a second NOD-scid host led to a diabetic outcome. The blockade of TNFalpha was accompanied by a considerable increase in spleen size and doubling of the total splenocyte count, suggesting that TNFalpha might normally eliminate a transplanted T-cell subset within the recipients. Further analysis showed an increase in the absolute count of CD4 + T cells and pronounced distortion of the CD45RBhigh to CD45RBlow ratio, with a relative augmentation in the CD45RBlow count in the spleen. TNFalpha appears to regulate the number and subtype distribution of a transplanted T cell population.