IL-12 has been reported to affect thymic T cell selection, but the role of IL-12 in thymic involution has not been studied. We found that in vivo, IL-12b knockout (IL-12b-/-) mice exhibited accelerated thymic involution compared with wild-type (WT) B6 mice. This is characterized by an increase in thymocytes with the early development stage phenotype of CD25 -CD44+CD4-CD8- in aged IL-12b -/- mice. Histologically, there were accelerated degeneration of thymic extracellular matrix and blood vessels, a significantly decreased thymic cortex/medulla ratio, and increased apoptotic cells in aged IL-12b -/- mice compared with WT mice. There was, however, no apparent defect in thymic structure and thymocyte development in young IL-12 -/- mice. These results suggest the importance of IL-12 in maintaining thymic integrity and function during the aging process. Surprisingly, in WT B6 mice, there was no age-related decrease in the levels of IL-12 produced from thymic dendritic cells. Stimulation of thymocytes with IL-12 alone also did not enhance the thymocyte proliferative response in vitro. IL-12, however, provided a strong synergistic effect to augment the IL-7 or IL-2 induced thymocyte proliferative response, especially in aged WT and IL-12b-/- mice. Our data strongly support the role of IL-12 as an enhancement cytokine, which acts through its interactions with other cytokines to maintain thymic T cell function and development during aging.