We studied purified subpopulations of lymphocytes from patients with the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) in order to determine whether intrinsic defects in lymphocyte function, aside from those due to alterations in lymphocyte numbers, were present. Mitogen-stimulated DNA synthesis, production of gamma interferon, production of interleukin-2, and expression of interleukin-2 receptors, although variably decreased in unseparated cell populations, were normal in populations of purified T-cell subsets. In contrast, DNA synthesis in response to the soluble protein antigen tetanus toxoid was decreased in both unseparated and purified T-cell subpopulations. Cell-mixing experiments demonstrated that the hyporesponsiveness of the unfractionated lymphocytes from patients with AIDS was not due to active suppression. We conclude that the lymphocytes of patients with AIDS, although capable of undergoing a normal degree of blast transformation and lymphokine production after mitogenic stimulation, have an intrinsic defect in their ability to recognize and respond to soluble antigen.