Low concentrations of beta-endorphin have been found to enhance human natural killer (NK) cell activity in vitro. Both beta-endorphin and NK activity are changed by clinical depression. To evaluate whether circulating concentrations of beta-endorphin have a role in the in vivo modulation of cellular immunity in humans, we measured plasma beta-endorphin and NK cell activity in 14 depressed patients and 14 age-matched control subjects. In the depressed patients, both plasma beta-endorphin and NK cell activity were reduced to 76% and 57%, respectively, of the mean levels in the control subjects. In addition, beta-endorphin showed a significant positive correlation with lytic units of NK cell activity in the combined group of all subjects and in the patient group (p = 0.04), but not in the control group. The study supports the hypothesis that circulating endorphin is correlated with NK cell activity in vivo. This correlation may be higher in the depressed patient group.