Freshly isolated human CD8+ cells can be divided into mutually exclusive subsets bearing the phenotypes CD11b+(CD28-) or CD28+(CD11b-). We found that activation of CD8+ cells with anti-CD3 mAb and IL-2 preferentially expanded the CD11b-(CD28+) subset. This subset, when separated and activated independently, mediated both functional suppression and lectin-dependent cell cytotoxicity (LDCC). CD28- cells, prepared by elimination of the CD 28+ cells from expanded unfractionated CD8+ cell cultures, retained functional suppressor activity but demonstrated reduced LDCC compared to either the CD28+(CD11b-)-enriched fraction or the unfractionated CD8+ population. The majority of the CD28- cells were also CD11b-, reflecting the observation that initially CD11b+ cells lose CD11b expression following activation with anti-CD3 mAb and IL-2. Our results therefore indicate that CD8+ cells deriving from the CD11b+CD28- subset, but expressing neither CD11b nor CD28 after activation, represent the main noncytotoxic functional suppressor cell in the mitogen "activated" suppressor assay. The preferential expansion of CD8+CD28+ cells relative to CD8+CD28- cells, if occurring in vivo in the central nervous system (CNS) compartment, would be consistent with observed phenotypic analysis of cerebrospinal fluid-derived T cells and might contribute to the reduced functional suppressor activity previously found for CNS compared to peripheral blood-derived lymphocytes.