Interleukin-2 activity of intestinal lamina propria mononuclear cells is decreased in Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis patients compared with control patients with noninflammatory bowel disease. Factors that might be responsible for this phenomenon were investigated. Most interleukin-2 activity was produced by helper (CD4+) T cells. These were present in comparable numbers in both inflammatory bowel disease and control cultures, but the frequency of interleukin-2-producing cells was significantly (3-4 times) lower among Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis than control cells. In agreement with this finding, levels of interleukin-2 messenger RNA were substantially decreased in both forms of inflammatory bowel disease compared with controls. Mucosal CD8+ T cells and plastic-adherent cells were unable to suppress interleukin-2 activity by autologous or allogeneic CD4+ T cells. The rate of interleukin-2 absorption was similar for inflammatory bowel disease and control cells. Induction of interleukin-2 by different stimuli (phorbol ester, phytohemagglutinin, or anti-CD3 monoclonal antibody) before or after incubation under basal conditions ("resting") failed to normalize the capacity to generate interleukin-2 by Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis cells. Prostanoids (prostaglandin E2 and 6-keto-prostaglandin F1 alpha) were produced in large amounts in cultures of inflammatory bowel disease cells, but inhibition by indomethacin failed to restore interleukin-2 activity to control levels. Finally, supernatants from Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis cell cultures failed to suppress interleukin-2 production by control CD4+ T cells. Our results show that the low interleukin-2 activity detected in inflammatory bowel disease mucosa is not caused by activated suppressor cells, excessive lymphokine utilization or immune stimulation, a defective response to activation signals, or production of inhibitory substances. Rather, the low interleukin-2 activity appears to be related to a loss of interleukin-2-producing mucosal CD4+ T cells. It is concluded that abnormalities of intestinal CD4+ T-cell function are associated with the immunopathogenesis of Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.