Visna is a persistent retrovirus infection of sheep which produces a chronic progressive paralytic disease after an incubation period lasting from months to years. The cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) was repeatedly sampled in a group of Icelandic sheep which were infected intracerebrally and followed up to 42 months. Minimal levels of infectious virus were isolated from the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) up to 4 months after infection after which CSF neutralizing antibodies appeared in many sheep. These antibodies varied in titer and in some animals exceeded serum antibody levels which were moderate to high. CSF antibody is apparently produced within the CNS by local proliferation of B cell clones, and is accompanied by the appearance of considerable numbers of plasma cells in the neural parenchyma. Some sheep raised serum antibody to a second serotype of visna virus and in a number of these animals heterotypic antibody was also found in the CSF.
An increase in CSF leukocytes often occurs within 1 to 3 months following infection and may then persist or wane. A persistent high level of CSF cells is an indicator of progressive CNS disease and such animals are more likely to yield virus, have higher CSF antibody levels, more severe CNS lesions, and an enhanced risk of clinical illness (progressive paralysis). CSF cells are predominantly macrophages and lymphocytes, with a consistent minority of plasma cells.