Proliferation and cytokine production profiles by blood mononuclear cells in response to in vitro stimulation with mycobacterial antigens were compared in patients with active tuberculosis and in sensitized healthy controls. Interleukin-4 (IL-4) and interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma) were detected at single-cell level using the ELISPOT assay. Patients showed significantly (P < 0.01) increased numbers of IL-4-secreting cells and decreased thymidine incorporation, but no significant difference in IFN-gamma-producing cells in response to the 38,000 MW or 19,000 MW antigens and their immunodominant peptide epitopes. Pronounced individual variations were found in both patient and control groups, when comparing the responsiveness to the mycobacterial extract, two protein antigens and five synthetic peptides. None of the antigens or peptides tested showed preferential stimulation of either IL-4- or IFN-gamma-secreting T cells, and proliferation was not correlated with either IL-4 or IFN-gamma production. In particular, cytokine responsiveness was of similar frequency in subjects who did or did not show positive proliferation, indicating that the latter test was not fully representative of the active T-cell repertoire. It is concluded that the demonstrated Th2 type of profile in response to two prominent mycobacterial antigens may play a role in the mechanisms of defective host resistance in tuberculosis.