PURPOSE: Experimental autoimmune uveoretinitis (EAU), an established model for human endogenous (autoimmune) posterior uveitis, is a CD4+ T cell-mediated disease inducible in Lewis rats by intradermal inoculation with retinal antigens. Immunohistochemical studies have previously documented the lymphocyte profiles during various stages of the disease process. The purpose of the present study was to investigate the role of macrophages in EAU. METHODS: EAU was induced in Lewis rats, and the effect of macrophage depletion, using the drug dichlorodimethylene diphosphonate (Cl2MDP) encapsulated in liposomes and administered intravenously, was assessed based on the clinical and histological profile of the disease. RESULTS: The results have shown that in control animals macrophages occur early, feature prominently throughout the course of the disease and display considerable heterogeneity: marrow-derived ED1+ cells and ED3+ cells are the major infiltrating cells, with many cells also expressing ED7 and ED8. In contrast, few cells expressed the ED2 antigen during EAU, even though ED2+ "resident" macrophages occur in the normal choroid. Macrophage depletion, using intravenously injected dichloromethylene diphosphonate (Cl2MDP) enclosed in liposomes, caused a delay in the onset and a reduction in the severity of EAU when administered during the "effector" stage of the disease, i.e. 9-11 days after inoculation with retinal antigen. The delay in disease onset was greater when liposomes were mannosylated and was accompanied by a reduction in the overall inflammatory cell infiltrate into the eye and reduced tissue damage. In addition, there was a reduction in the level of expression of MHC Class II antigen and CR3 (ED7) antigen, a marker of macrophage activation, in Cl2MDP-treated animals compared to controls. CONCLUSION: These results suggest that blood-borne, activated macrophages are major effectors of tissue damage during EAU.