Optimal T cell responsiveness requires signaling through the T cell receptor (TCR) and CD28 costimulatory receptors. Previously, we showed that T cells from autoimmune nonobese diabetic (NOD) mice display proliferative hyporesponsiveness to TCR stimulation, which may be causal to the development of insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM). Here, we demonstrate that anti-CD28 mAb stimulation restores complete NOD T cell proliferative responsiveness by augmentation of IL-4 production. Whereas neonatal treatment of NOD mice with anti-CD28 beginning at 2 wk of age inhibits destructive insulitis and protects against IDDM by enhancement of IL-4 production by islet-infiltrating T cells, administration of anti-CD28 beginning at 5-6 wk of age does not prevent IDDM. Simultaneous anti-IL-4 treatment abrogates the preventative effect of anti-CD28 treatment. Thus, neonatal CD28 costimulation during 2-4 wk of age is required to prevent IDDM, and is mediated by the generation of a Th2 cell-enriched nondestructive environment in the pancreatic islets of treated NOD mice. Our data support the hypothesis that a CD28 signal is requisite for activation of IL-4-producing cells and protection from IDDM.