Human thymic dendritic cells (DC) have previously been shown to be intimately associated with thymocytes in situ and in culture. We report that thymic DC express LFA-3 and ICAM-1 adhesion molecules and may spontaneously associate with autologous thymocytes within mitogen-independent clusters. Moreover, the accessory activity of isolated human thymic DC was investigated in Con A-stimulation assays. By proliferation experiments, measured as [3H]TdR incorporation, we demonstrated that irradiated thymic DC strongly increase the mitogen-induced activation of autologous PBL as well as of unfractionated thymocytes. More interestingly, in coculture assays performed with purified thymocyte subsets, we have found that thymic DC greatly enhance the Con A proliferation of CD1- CD3bright thymocytes whereas the accessory activity toward the CD1+ CD3- thymocytes was very weak. Inhibition experiments demonstrated that the DC accessory activity is inhibited by anti-DR-related and anti-IL-2R mAb. However, blocking assays with anti-CD11b, anti-CD11c, anti-LFA-3, and anti-ICAM1 mAb showed that the accessory function obtained is similar to that with untreated cultures. We conclude that isolated human thymic DC may present potent DR- and IL-2-dependent accessory activity mainly directed toward the CD1- CD3bright thymocyte subpopulation, suggesting that thymic DC may be involved in the in vivo proliferation of mature thymocytes.