Lymphocyte blastogenic responses to O. volvulus antigen (Oncho Ag), SKSD, and the mitogen PHA were tested in three groups of persons: light to moderately infected persons (INF); previously exposed but uninfected persons (EXP) and normal controls (NC). The exposed group showed significant responsiveness to Oncho Ag (delta ct/min = 6,002 +/- 1,375), while the infected (delta ct/min = 943 +/- 418) and normal control (delta ct/min = 428 +/- 418) groups did not. The mean blastogenic response to SKSD were EXP, 8,644 +/- 5,249; NC 6,039 +/- 2,880; INF, 2,619 +/- 1,012. The reduced reactivity in the INF group to Oncho Ag showed a significant correlation with reactivity to SKSD (P less than 0.05). To elucidate the mechanism of hyporesponsiveness in the infected group rigorous adherent cell depletion, by adherence to plastic followed by a nylon wool column, was utilized. When 20% plastic adherent cells were added back to the T cells prepared in this fashion, the mean blastogenic response to SKSD was significantly augmented (P less than 0.01). In contrast, the responsiveness to Oncho Ag was not significantly altered. The addition of indomethacin (1 microgram/ml) or autologous plasma had no significant effect on reactivity to either SKSD or Oncho Ag. There were no significant differences in the mean reactivity of the three groups to PHA-M (delta ct/min EXP 78,514 +/- 12,564; INF 62,393 +/- 14,447; NC 61,423 +/- 4,465). These results suggest that O. volvulus infection is associated with decreased lymphocyte reactivity to both parasite related and unrelated antigens, and imply that the mechanism for the two types of hyporesponsiveness may be distinct. While a weakly adherent suppressor cell may account for non-specific hyporesponsiveness, the mechanism of parasite specific decreased reactivity remains unknown.