We explored the expression of the interleukin 2 receptor (IL-2R) and the synthesis of IL-2R messenger RNA by peripheral blood leukocytes obtained from medical students experiencing examination stress in three independent studies. The peripheral blood leukocytes obtained at low-stress baseline periods had significantly higher percentages of IL-2R-positive cells when compared with cells obtained from the same individuals during examinations. In addition, IL2-R messenger RNA in peripheral blood leukocytes decreased significantly during examination periods in a subset of 13 subjects. In one study, we found an increase in the accumulation of interleukin 2 in cultures of cells showing down regulation of IL-2R expression and IL-2R messenger RNA levels. While there are ample data demonstrating stress-associated decrements in the immune response in humans and animals, these data provide the first evidence that this interaction may be observed at the level of gene expression. The data suggest one mechanism whereby the central nervous system modulates the immune response during psychological stress.