The in vitro effect of histamine and its antagonists, cimetidine and clemastine fumarate, on natural killer (NK) and antibody-dependent cellular cytotoxicity (ADCC) activities of human lymphocytes was investigated. The histamine 1 (H1) antagonist, clemastine fumarate, and the histamine 2 (H2) antagonist, cimetidine, but not histamine alone, inhibited the NK and ADCC activities of lymphocytes when added directly to the mixture of effector and target cells in a 51Cr-release assay. This inhibition was proportional to the concentration of drugs added and was observed at various effector to target ratios against several targets. H1 and H2 antagonists also inhibited NK activities of T cells as well as Percoll-separated, NK-enriched effector cells. The inhibition was significantly reversed by histamine. In target binding assays, clemastine fumarate and cimetidine also decreased the target binding capacity of effector lymphocytes. Further, PBL precultured with histamine (10(-3)-10(-4) M) for 24 hr showed a significant decrease in their NK and ADCC activities. In coculture experiments, PBL precultured with histamine suppressed the NK activity of normal autologous effector lymphocytes. PBL precultured with histamine showed an increased number of OKT8+ cells, as estimated using monoclonal antibodies. The suppression of cytotoxicity was not due to either direct toxicity, steric hindrance, crowding, or cell death, but by functionally viable suppressor cells. An immunoregulatory role for histamine in NK and ADCC reactions is proposed.