CD40 ligand (CD40-L), a member of the tumor necrosis family of transmembrane glycoproteins, is rapidly and transiently expressed on the surface of recently activated CD4+ T cells. Interactions between CD40-L and CD40 induce B cell immunoglobulin production as well as monocyte activation and dendritic cell differentiation. Since these features characterize rheumatoid arthritis (RA), the expression and function of CD40-L in RA was examined. Freshly isolated RA peripheral blood (PB) and synovial fluid (SF) T cells expressed CD40-L mRNA as well as low level cell surface CD40-L. An additional subset of CD4+ RA SF T cells upregulated cell surface CD40-L expression within 15 min of in vitro activation even in the presence of cycloheximide, but soluble CD40-L was not found in SF. CD40-L expressed by RA T cells was functional, since RA PB and SF T cells but not normal PB T cells stimulated CD40-L-dependent B cell immunoglobulin production and dendritic cell IL-12 expression in the absence of prolonged in vitro T cell activation. In view of the diverse proinflammatory effects of CD40-L, this molecule is likely to play a central role in the perpetuation of rheumatoid synovitis. Of importance, blockade of CD40-L may prove highly effective as a disease modifying therapy for RA.