Several types of T regulatory (Treg) cells have been described in both mice and humans, including natural or professional (CD4+CD25+ T cells) and adaptive (Th3 and Tr1 cells) Treg cells. The former develops in the thymus and results in an endogeneous long-lived population of self-antigen-specific T cells in the periphery poised to prevent potentially autoimmune reactions. The second subset develops as a consequence of activation of mature T cells under particular conditions of sub-optimal antigen exposure and/or costimulation. Natural Treg cells are positively selected in the cortex through their TCR interactions with self-peptides presented by thymic stromal cells. It is likely that this high-affinity recognition results in signals rendering them anergic and able to produce anti-apoptoptic molecules which protect them from negative selection. Recently, small subsets of CD4+CD25+ and of CD8+CD25+ cells sharing similar characteristics have been detected in human fetal and post-natal thymuses. Both CD4+CD25+ and CD8+CD25+ human thymocytes express Foxp3 and GITR mRNA, as well as surface CCR8 and TNFR2 and cytoplasmic CTLA-4 proteins, which are common features of mature Treg cells. Following activation they do not proliferate or produce cytokines, but express surface CTLA-4 and TGF-beta1. They suppress the proliferation of autologous CD4+CD25- thymocytes to allogeneic stimulation by a contact-dependent mechanism related to the combined action of surface CTLA-4 and TGF-beta leading to the inhibition of the IL-2R alpha chain on target T cells. Lastly, both CD4+CD25+ and CD8+CD25+ Treg thymocytes exert strong suppressive activity on Th1, but much lower on Th2 cells, since these latter may escape from suppression via their ability to respond to growth factors other than IL-2. Treg cells that develop in, and emerge from, the thymus are certainly responsible for the maintenance of self-tolerance and prevention of autoimmune disorders. The result that Th1 cells are highly susceptible to the suppressive activity of Treg thymocytes is consistent with the important role of these cells in protecting against the Th1-mediated immune response to autoantigens.