Germinal centers (GCs) contain a significant number of CD4+ T cells, but what role these T cells may play in the development of GC B cells has not been determined. To gain insight into their role, we studied the phenotype of GC T cells and the lymphokines secreted by GC T cells isolated from human tonsils obtained after tonsillectomies. In addition to confirming that a large fraction of GC T cells are Leu-7(CD57)+ and Leu-8-, we found that they have no binding sites for peanut agglutinin. Furthermore, we found that they are CD45RA- and CD45R0+, the phenotype of helper-inducer T cells. We also found that Leu-7(CD57)+ cells display CD69, a phenotypic marker of very early cell activation, but do not display three other markers of cell activation: CD25 [interleukin-2 (IL-2) receptor], CD71 (transferrin receptor), and DR. When isolated, Leu-7(CD57)+ cells were stimulated in vitro with a mitogen that can induce peripheral blood T cells with the helper-inducer phenotype to produce various cytokines, Leu-7(CD57)+ cells did not produce IL-2, interleukin-4 (IL-4), interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma) or tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha) in significant amounts. Taken together, GC T cells from a distinct subpopulation of T cells with helper-inducer phenotype by their histologic location, by their surface phenotype, and by their ability to produce lymphokines. This finding is consistent with the possibility that GC T cells have been selectively recruited to actively help B cells develop in GCs.