Normal human lamina propria lymphocytes are in a heightened state of activation compared with peripheral blood with regard to cell-surface activation antigen expression (transferrin receptor, interleukin-2 receptor, 4F2) and the increased spontaneous secretion of immunoglobulins in vitro. This study evaluates the cell-surface expression of activation-associated antigens in different subpopulations of isolated colonic lamina propria mononuclear cells in inflammatory bowel disease. In pilot studies using three-color flow cytometry, autofluorescence was observed that was emitted by unstained lamina propria mononuclear cells, which interfered with both the sensitivity and the specificity of the analyses. Because a major portion of the intestinal lymphocyte populations of interest were autofluorescent, a method to remove autofluorescence signals was developed by designing a computer program for the subtraction of autofluorescence from the emissions of each individual cell. This technique increases both the sensitivity and specificity of flow-cytometric analyses of intestinal lamina propria mononuclear cells. Using fluorescence-activated cell-sorter analyses with subtraction of autofluorescence on a single-cell basis, increased expression of lymphocyte activation antigens (interleukin-2 receptor, transferrin receptor, 4F2) was found on the cell surface of isolated intestinal B cells, T cells, CD4+ T cells, and CD8+ T cells in both Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. Therefore, markedly increased intestinal lymphocyte activation is a major immunological alteration in inflammatory bowel disease and includes all lymphocyte subpopulations investigated in this study. In addition, 5-aminosalicylic acid, which is used for the treatment of intestinal inflammation in inflammatory bowel disease, inhibits the expression of cell-surface activation antigens on mitogen-activated peripheral blood lymphocytes in a dose-dependent manner. These observations suggest that lymphocyte activation may play an important role in underlying immune processes that lead to chronicity and perpetuation of inflammatory bowel disease and may implicate an additional mechanism for the therapeutic action of 5-aminosalicylic acid.