A hypertonic environment, as it prevails in renal medulla or in hyperosmolar states such as hyperglycemia of diabetes mellitus, has been shown to impair the immune response, thus facilitating the development of infection. The present experiments were performed to test whether hypertonicity influences activation of T lymphocytes. To this end, peripheral blood lymphocytes (PBL) of cytomegalovirus (CMV)-positive donors were stimulated by human leukocyte antigen (HLA)-A2-restricted CMV epitope NLVPMVATV to produce interferon (IFN)-gamma at varying extracellular osmolarity. As a result, increasing extracellular osmolarity during exposure to the CMV antigen indeed decreased IFN-gamma formation. Addition of NaCl was more effective than urea. A 50% inhibition was observed at 350 mosM by addition of NaCl. The combined application of the Ca(2+) ionophore ionomycin (1 microg/ml) and the phorbol ester phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate (PMA; 5 microg/ml) stimulated IFN-gamma production, an effect again reversed by hyperosmolarity. Moreover, hyperosmolarity abrogated the stimulating effect of ionomycin (1 microg/ml) and PMA (5 microg/ml) on the transcription factors activator protein (AP)-1, nuclear factor of activated T cells (NFAT), and NF-kappaB but not Sp1. In conclusion, osmotic cell shrinkage blunts the stimulatory action of antigen exposure on IFN-gamma production, an effect explained at least partially by suppression of transcription factor activation.