Adrenergic receptor agonists are known to attenuate the proliferative response of human lymphocytes after activation; however, their mechanism of action is unknown. Since expression of interleukin 2 (IL-2) receptors is a prerequisite for proliferation, the effect of beta-adrenergic receptor agonists on lymphocyte IL-2 receptors was studied on both mitogen-stimulated lymphocytes and IL-2-dependent T lymphocyte cell lines. In both cell types the beta-adrenergic receptor agonist isoproterenol blocked the expression of IL-2 receptors, as determined with the IL-2 receptor anti-TAC antibody. To determine the effect of beta-adrenergic agonists on expression of the high affinity IL-2 receptors, [125I]IL-2 binding studies were performed at concentrations selective for high affinity sites. No significant effect of beta-adrenergic agonists on high affinity IL-2 receptor sites could be detected. The data demonstrate that beta-adrenergic receptor agonists down-regulate IL-2 receptors primarily affecting low affinity sites.