Specific immune responses against malignant brain tumors have been difficult to demonstrate. Moreover, immunotherapy has met with little success, despite using lymphocytes with high levels of cytotoxicity against brain tumor cells. Lymphokine-activated killer (LAK) cells that nonspecifically kill brain tumor cells are produced by stimulating resting precursors with high concentrations of interleukin-2 (IL-2). Cytotoxic T lymphocytes that specifically kill brain tumor cells are produced by stimulating antigen receptor-positive immune-cell precursors with tumor cells. In an attempt to gain insight into immune cell function against brain tumors, the present study compared the in vitro and in vivo activities of LAK cells and cytotoxic T lymphocytes produced against RT2, a fast-growing rat glioma cell line. Lymphokine-activated killer cells were produced by stimulating normal rat spleen cells with 1000 units of IL-2, and RT2-specific cytotoxic T lymphocytes were produced by priming them in vivo with RT2 and Corynebacterium parvum and restimulating primed spleen cells with RT2 in vitro. Lymphokine-activated killer cells were highly cytotoxic for a panel of syngeneic and allogeneic brain tumor and non-brain tumor target cells, including RT2, as measured in a 4-hour 51Cr release assay. Cytotoxic T lymphocytes were highly cytotoxic only for syngeneic brain tumor target cells. Lymphokine-activated killer cells and cytotoxic T lymphocytes were tested for in vivo antitumor activity against intracerebral RT2 by intravenous adoptive transfer of activated lymphocytes. Untreated rats died in approximately 2 weeks. Lymphokine-activated killer cells plus IL-2 failed to affect survival when treatment was initiated as early as 1 day following tumor inoculation. Cytotoxic T lymphocytes and IL-2 administered as late as Day 5 rejected progressing intracerebral tumor. Thus, although both cytotoxic T lymphocytes and LAK cells exhibited high levels of in vitro killing of glioma cells, only cytotoxic T lymphocytes rejected progressing intracerebral tumors.