Reactivity toward soluble recall antigens (Candida albicans, cytomegalovirus, herpes simplex, streptokinase-streptodornase, and influenza) was determined in cultures of peripheral blood mononuclear cells from 41 rheumatoid arthritis patients (with clinically active as well as inactive disease) and from 28 controls. In the group with clinically active rheumatoid arthritis we found an increased incidence of "anergy," defined as nonreactivity to three or more antigens. In an attempt to explain this decreased antigen reactivity, the latter was correlated with peripheral blood lymphocyte subsets, as defined by two-color immunofluorescence with a panel of eight monoclonal antibodies. We found a significantly lower number of memory T4 cells (CD4+CD45RA-) and a significantly higher number of the CD3-CD57+ (nonspecific suppressor) cells and of CD3-CD56+/CD16+ (natural killer) cells in anergic RA patients. In the total group of rheumatoid arthritis patients, the antigen reactivity correlated positively with the percentage of memory T4 cells. Antigen reactivity was negatively correlated with the percentage of CD3-CD57+ cells and of the CD3- natural killer cells in peripheral blood. Our data suggest that a decrease in memory T4 cells and an increase in nonspecific suppressor cells may contribute to the impaired cellular immune function in peripheral blood of rheumatoid arthritis patients.