We report that the subsets of CD4+ T cells characterized by differential expression of CD45RA (2H4) Ag showed significant differences in proliferative response to immobilized anti-CD3 antibody (Ab) and cytokines: IL-1, IL-2, IL-4, and IL-6. Most strikingly, CD4+/45RA+ but not CD4+/45RA- T cells responded to anti-CD3 Ab and IL-4. Similar difference in response to IL-4 occurred when the subsets were stimulated by two "alternative" T cell activation pathways via CD2 and GD3 Ag. The response of CD4+/45RA+ cells to anti-CD3 Ab and IL-4 was enhanced by the two monokines: IL-1 and IL-6. Further differences between the subsets included the preferential response of the CD4+/45RA+ cells to enhancing effect of IL-6 on proliferation mediated by the anti-CD3 Ab and IL-2. In contrast to IL-6, IL-1 was unable to increase this proliferation significantly. In turn, the CD4+/45RA- cells responded preferentially to a weak stimulation mediated by anti-CD3 Ab either alone, or together with IL-1 and IL-6. Existence of these significant differences in the response of CD4+ T cell subsets costimulatory effects of the cytokines, suggests that the in vivo events resulting in an accumulation of the cytokines in particular combinations may lead to selective activation of one of the CD4+ T cell subsets during the immune response.