Following intracerebral inoculation of Theiler's murine encephalomyelitis virus (TMEV), susceptible mouse strains develop a chronic demyelinating disease characterized by mononuclear cell-rich infiltrates in the central nervous system. Current evidence strongly supports an immune-mediated basis for myelin breakdown, with an effector role proposed for TMEV-specific, major histocompatibility class II-restricted delayed-type hypersensitivity, which temporally correlates with disease onset and remains chronically elevated in susceptible mice. This study examined the fine specificity of class II-restricted T cell responses in TMEV-infected mice to better define the relevant virus-encoded T cell determinant(s) responsible for triggering the demyelinating process, and to determine if class II-restricted neuroantigen-specific autoimmune responses could be detected in mice with TMEV-induced demyelination. The data clearly show that T cell responses in TMEV-infected mice are directed against determinants shared by closely related TMEV strains and are cross-reactive with related picornaviruses, such as encephalomyocarditis virus. In contrast, class II-restricted autoimmune responses against syngeneic mouse spinal cord homogenate and the two major protein components of myelin, myelin basic protein and proteolipid protein, are not demonstrable in susceptible SJL/J mice undergoing chronic TMEV-induced demyelinating disease, but are readily seen in SJL/J mice displaying chronic, relapsing experimental allergic encephalomyelitis. Cross-reactivity (or lack thereof), as determined by functional T cell analyses, was found to correlate with the extent of exact amino acid homology between the TMEV capsid proteins, the two neuroantigens, and related picornaviruses. The data thus do not support a major role for autoimmune responses against myelin proteins in TMEV-induced demyelinating disease, but are consistent with our previously proposed hypothesis that TMEV-specific T cell responses constitute a major effector mechanism of myelin breakdown.