Autoimmune gastritis induced by neonatal thymectomy of mice is a CD4+ T cell-mediated organ-specific autoimmune disease. The characteristic features of autoimmune gastritis, which include a mononuclear infiltrate within the gastric mucosa, loss of parietal and chief cells and circulating autoantibodies to the gastric H+/K+ ATPase, appear 6-10 weeks after thymectomy. Here we have assessed the role of interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma) in the pathogenesis of the gastric lesion. Splenic T cells derived from mice with gastritis produced three- to tenfold more IFN-gamma than T cells from normal animals after stimulation with anti-CD3 antibodies. Treatment of neonatally thymectomized mice at weekly intervals for 6 or 12 weeks with a neutralizing rat monoclonal antibody to mouse IFN-gamma abolished the production of anti-gastric autoantibodies and decreased the incidence of gastric mononuclear infiltrates from the 69% observed in normal rat immunoglobulin (Ig)-injected mice to 16%. Further, in mice treated with only a single dose of anti-IFN-gamma immediately after thymectomy at 3 days after birth, the incidence of autoimmune gastritis was 1/19 compared to 8/19 in normal rat Ig-injected mice. Prevention of autoimmunity by neutralization of IFN-gamma several weeks prior to the detection of a pathological lesion strongly suggests that IFN-gamma plays an essential role in the initiation of the gastric autoimmune response.