IL-15 is a critical cytokine for the maintenance of memory-phenotype CD8 cells in mice. Here, we investigated the role of IL-15 in the neurological disease termed human T cell lymphotropic virus I-associated myelopathy/tropical spastic paraparesis (HAM/TSP). The high number of viral-specific CD8 cells in these patients is associated with inflammatory responses in the central nervous system. Because IL-15 is overexpressed in these patients, we asked whether IL-15 contributes to the persistence of human T cell lymphotropic virus I viral-specific CD8 cells. Using ex vivo cultures of HAM/TSP peripheral blood mononuclear cells, we demonstrated that in the majority of patients examined here blocking IL-15 action resulted in a decrease in the number of viral-specific CD8 cells. This decrease was caused by both inhibition of proliferation and induction of apoptosis in these cells. The data indicate that IL-15 plays a major role in the maintenance of viral-specific CD8 cells in HAM/TSP.