Natural killer cell activity is inhibited by primary cultures of monolayer cells. In this study, we analyzed the mechanism of the inhibition. Inhibited NK cells showed unaltered binding capacity to NK sensitive K562 cells. The orientation of the effector cells' actin-containing microfilaments, an event known to occur during the programming for the lysis stage in lytic conjugates, was unaffected by the inhibition. In single cell cytotoxicity experiments, the number of killer cells among conjugate-forming cells was reduced. The capacity of the inactivated NK cells to secrete cytotoxic factors upon stimulation with Con A was also impaired. Both NK-resistant inactivating target cells and NK-sensitive K562 cells were sensitive to the toxic factors secreted by NK cells. Thus, the results indicate that the target cell-mediated inactivation of NK cell is based on a block in the lethal hit stage, possibly due to reduced release of toxic factor(s) from the effector cells. The capacity of inactivated effector cells to mediate antibody-dependent cellular cytotoxicity was unimpaired, suggesting that the contact-mediated inhibition of cytotoxicity selectively affects NK cells.