A major feature of the immature immune system in the newborn is its inability to produce significant levels of immunoglobulins other than IgM in response to antigens. It has recently been demonstrated that interaction of the CD40 molecule on B cells with the CD40 ligand (CD40L) on activated T cells is pivotal for immunoglobulin switching. In view of these findings, we have tested cord blood mononuclear cells (CBMC) for expression of CD40L. Our data clearly demonstrate that freshly isolated CBMC do not express significant levels of CD40L upon in vitro activation; this defect is intrinsic to CD4+ cord blood lymphocytes. In vitro priming of CBMC with phytohemagglutinin and interleukin-2 for several days induced a conversion from the "naive" to the "memory" phenotype (as assessed by expression of CD45 isoforms) and led to substantial CD40L expression upon appropriate restimulation. These data indicate that ineffective CD40L expression might represent a major factor for reduced immunoglobulin production in the neonate, and suggest that antigenic exposure in vivo leads to changes in the genetic program, enabling T cells to express CD40L.