Cultured cytolytic T lymphocytes of clonal origin were screened for histamine-stimulated cyclic AMP production. Histamine caused a 2- to 8-fold elevation of cyclic AMP levels in five independent clones. The EC50 for histamine of 1.7 X 10(-5) M and the rank order of potencies of H1 and H2 agonists [impromidine greater than histamine greater than dimaprit greater than 4-methylhistamine greater than 2-methylhistamine greater than 2-(2-aminoethyl)-thiazole] were characteristic of the conventional histamine H2 receptor. H1 and H2 antagonists inhibited histamine-stimulated cyclic AMP elevation with inhibition constants typical for those found on other H2 receptor systems. Prior incubation of cells with histamine resulted in a marked loss in responsiveness to subsequent histamine challenge. We demonstrate that this desensitization is dose and time dependent and results in a change in the efficacy and not the potency of histamine. Although cyclic AMP increases could also be elicited with isoproterenol, prostaglandin E1 or forskolin, desensitization of histamine had no effect on the ability of these agents to stimulate cyclic AMP production. In contrast to the rapid rate of histamine-induced desensitization, recovery of histamine responsiveness could not be detected for several hours.