RATIONALE: CD4(+) natural killer T (NKT) cells augment atherosclerosis in apolipoprotein E-deficient (ApoE)(-/-) mice but their mechanisms of action are unknown. OBJECTIVES: We investigated the roles of bystander T, B, and NK cells; NKT cell-derived interferon-gamma, interleukin (IL)-4, and IL-21 cytokines; and NKT cell-derived perforin and granzyme B cytotoxins in promoting CD4(+) NKT cell atherogenicity. METHODS AND RESULTS: Transfer of CD4(+) NKT cells into T- and B-cell-deficient ApoE(-/-)Rag2(-/-) mice augmented aortic root atherosclerosis by approximately 75 that was approximately 30 of lesions in ApoE(-/-) mice; macrophage accumulation similarly increased. Transferred NKT cells were identified in the liver and atherosclerotic lesions of recipient mice. Transfer of CD4(+) NKT cells into T-, B-cell-deficient, and NK cell-deficient ApoE(-/-)Rag2(-/-)gammaC(-/-) mice also augmented atherosclerosis. These data indicate that CD4(+) NKT cells can exert proatherogenic effects independent of other lymphocytes. To investigate the role of NKT cell-derived interferon-gamma, IL-4, and IL-21 cytokines and perforin and granzyme B cytotoxins, CD4(+) NKT cells from mice deficient in these molecules were transferred into NKT cell-deficient ApoE(-/-)Jalpha18(-/-) mice. CD4(+) NKT cells deficient in IL-4, interferon-gamma, or IL-21 augmented atherosclerosis in ApoE(-/-)Jalpha18(-/-) mice by approximately 95 , approximately 80 , and approximately 70 , respectively. Transfer of CD4(+) NKT cells deficient in perforin or granzyme B failed to augment atherosclerosis. Apoptotic cells, necrotic cores, and proinflammatory VCAM-1 (vascular cell adhesion molecule) and MCP-1 (monocyte chemotactic protein) were reduced in mice receiving perforin-deficient NKT cells. CD4(+) NKT cells are twice as potent as CD4(+) T cells in promoting atherosclerosis. CONCLUSIONS: CD4(+) NKT cells potently promote atherosclerosis by perforin and granzyme B-dependent apoptosis that increases postapoptotic necrosis and inflammation.