In HIV infection, several arguments suggest a certain degree of CD4+ T cell activation which might contribute to lymphocyte dysfunctions. To investigate this possibility, we determined the phenotypes of circulating CD4+ T cells using monoclonal antibodies directed to activation markers and examined whether the defective in vitro interleukin-2 (IL-2) production by purified CD4+ T cells isolated from infected individuals was reversible in rested cultured T cells, a phenomenon suggestive of in vivo CD4+ T cell exhaustion. The number of CD4+ T cells expressing HLA-DR molecules was the same as that observed in controls, remained constant throughout the course of HIV infection, and constituted a major part of circulating CD4+ T cells. In CDC stage II group, the increased percentage of CD4+DR+ T cells was also associated with an increased expression of early activation markers. Defective IL-2 production in vitro was restored when CD4+ T cells were allowed to rest in culture. In addition, the number of circulating CD4+DR+ T cells correlated negatively with the in vitro IL-2 production induced by phytohemagglutinin and phorbol ester by freshly isolated CD4+ T cells. Taken together, these data suggest that in vivo activated CD4+ T cells may participate in the immune abnormalities of HIV infection.