Ageing is associated with complex remodelling in the phenotypic and functional profiles of T lymphocytes. We investigated whether expression of CD28 antigen on T cells is conserved throughout adulthood and ageing in humans. For this purpose we analysed T cells obtained from peripheral blood of 102 healthy people of ages ranging from 20 to 105 years. We found an age-related increase of CD28- T cells in percentage and absolute number, predominantly among CD8+ T cells. CD28- T cells from aged donors analysed by flow cytometry appeared as resting cells (not expressing CD25, CD38, CD69, CD71, DR), bearing markers of cytotoxic activity (CD 11b and CD 57) and with a phenotype compatible with 'memory' cells (up-regulated CD2 and CD11a; CD62L absent). At the functional level, freshly isolated purified CD28- CD8+ T cells showed high anti-CD3 redirected cytotoxic activity against Fc-bearing P815 cells. The same activity tested on freshly isolated bulk T lymphocytes was significantly augmented with age. We found a positive correlation between age, number of CD8+ CD28- T cells and anti-CD3 redirected cytotoxicity by freshly isolated T cells. These data suggest that an activation of unknown nature within the cytotoxic arm of the immune system occurs with age. We speculate that these cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL) in vivo may constitute armed effector cells for immediate killing of targets bearing peptides from pathogens of intracellular origin.