The mechanisms by which T lymphocytes acquire the capacity to produce interleukin 4 (IL-4) and other lymphokines during intrathymic and extrathymic development are poorly understood. To gain insight into this process, we determined the capacity of human neonatal and adult T lineage cell populations to produce IL-4 after polyclonal activation. IL-2 and interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma) production were studied in parallel, since their production by neonatal T cells is known to be similar or diminished, respectively, compared to adult T cells. Production of IL-4 by neonatal CD4+ T cells and IFN-gamma by neonatal CD4+ and CD8+ T cells was markedly lower compared with analogous adult cell populations, whereas IL-2 production was similar. Transcription of IL-4, as determined by nuclear run-on assays, and IL-4 mRNA-containing cells, as determined by in situ hybridization, were undetectable in neonatal T cells, whereas both were detectable in adult T cells. IFN-gamma transcription and IFN-gamma mRNA-containing cells were reduced in neonatal T cells compared with adult T cells. Reduced lymphokine production by neonatal T cells correlated with their lack of a CD45R- (putative memory T cell) population; cells with this surface phenotype comprised 30-40% of the adult CD4+ T cells and were highly enriched for IL-4 and IFN-gamma, but not IL-2 production. IL-4, IFN-gamma, and IL-2 mRNA expression by neonatal CD4+CD8- thymocytes was similar to that found in circulating neonatal CD4+ T cells. Taken together, these findings suggest that the extrathymic generation of memory T cells during postnatal life may result in an increased capacity for IL-4 and IFN-gamma gene expression. In addition, IFN-gamma and IL-2 mRNA were significantly more abundant than IL-4 mRNA in activated neonatal CD4+CD8- thymocytes and CD4+ T cells, as well as adult CD4+ CD45R- T cells. Therefore, the capacity of T lineage cells to express the IL-4 gene may be more restricted compared to other lymphokine genes beginning in intrathymic development. This restricted capacity appears to persist during postnatal extrathymic maturation of T cells.