The mechanism of spontaneous activation of B cells in patients with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) was analyzed by using anti-class II monoclonal antibodies in vitro. B cells from SLE patients showed enhanced proliferation and Ig production by in vitro culture without any stimulation. The number of Ig-producing cells increased during a 5-day culture period, but the addition of anti-class II antibodies such as anti-HLA-DR, DQ, or DP monoclonal antibodies inhibited these B cell responses in a dose-dependent manner. Anti-class I and anti-B1 antibody gave no effect. The inhibitory effect of anti-class II antibodies on B cell responses became more remarkable when B cells were cultured on a longer period. By a Percoll gradient density centrifugation, Ig-producing cells were enriched in the lower density fraction, but became depleted in the higher density fraction. However, B cells of the higher density fraction developed into Ig-producing cells after 5 days of culture and anti-class II antibodies inhibited this development. When mitomycin C- and cycloheximide-treated B cells were added to the in vitro culture of B cells as a stimulator, B cell responses were enhanced in a dose-dependent manner. T cells treated with mitomycin C and cycloheximide had no enhancing effect on B cell responses. Furthermore, the enhancing effect of the stimulator B cells was inhibited by the pretreatment of stimulator B cells with anti-class II antibodies. These results suggest that in patients with SLE the abnormality exists in B precursor cells which are easily activated by interacting with other B cells to differentiate into Ig-producing cells and anti-class II antibodies inhibit the B cell activation by interfering with this cellular interaction.