Age-related thymic involution is a multifactorial process related to age-related changes in intrathymic T-cell development and cytokines. In contrast, early thymic involution, because of genetic differences that cause rapid or slow thymic involution at younger age, is less well characterized. Here, we analysed three representative rapid-involuting strains of mice, BXD 8, 18 and 32, compared with three representative slow-involuting strains, BXD 9, 19 and 29, all at 2 months of age. In rapid-involuting strains compared with slow involution strains, thymocyte production, as indicated by CD4+ and CD8+ T-cell receptor recombination excision circle (TREC), were decreased. Rapid-involution strains of mice exhibited a developmental block at the DN1 to DN2 and CD4-CD8- (DN) to CD4 +CD8+ (double positive, DP) transition stages. There was also increased susceptibility to H2O2-induced apoptosis, decreased thymic expression of IL-7, decreased expression of an IL-7 downstream anti-apoptosis gene, Bcl-2, and increased expression of a pro-apoptotic gene, Bad. In contrast, IL-7R expression was higher on DN thymocytes of rapid-involution strains. The increased expression of IL-7R was associated with an increased thymocyte proliferation in response to anti-CD3 + IL-7 or anti-CD3 + IL-12 + IL-7. These findings indicate that, even at young age, genetic differences of IL-7/IL-7R regulation pathway in BXD strains of mice can lead to characteristic phenotypic changes that have been previously associated with age-related thymic involution. © 2006 The Authors.