Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is one of the most common chronic inflammatory syndromes. As such, RA is often considered the prototype disease for defining both the molecular and pathological basis of immune-mediated chronic inflammatory disease, and for validating targeted therapies. The immunogenetics of RA suggest a key role for aberrant pathways of T-cell activation in the initiation and/or perpetuation of disease. In the T-cell activation process, CD4+ T-cells are engaged by antigenic peptide fragments in a complex with HLA class II molecules, in addition to co-stimulatory molecules, such as CD80/CD86, expressed on the surface of professional antigen presenting cells. The strongest evidence supporting a role for CD4+ T cells in disease pathogenesis is the association between RA and HLA-DRB1; however, the functional role of this association has yet to be defined. Susceptibility to RA may also be linked with several RA-associated allelic variants of genes, especially PTPN22, but also CTLA4, IL2RA, IL-2RB, STAT4, PTPN2 and PADI4, many of which encode molecules directly implicated in pathways of T-cell activation.The presence of inflammatory infiltrates, such as follicular structures, in the synovial membrane provides compelling evidence of ongoing immune reactions in moderate to severe RA. These structures likely play a key role in T cell - B cell cooperation and the local generation of specific autoantibodies; as such, chronically activated synovial T cells represent key cellular targets for therapy. Evidence also supports a role for T-helper (Th) cells, Th17 cells, and impaired CD4+CD25(hi) regulatory T cell (Treg) function in the pathogenesis of RA. In addition to discussing a range of issues regarding T-cell activation in RA, this review describes how therapeutic modulation of T-cell function, as opposed to profound immunosuppression or immunodepletion, has been associated with better disease outcomes in clinical trials. Ultimately, elucidation of the distinct effects of co-stimulation modulation with abatacept on T cells should provide key insights into understanding how to restore immune homeostasis in patients with RA.