We have used a murine respiratory challenge model to examine the local T cell responses in the lung during infection with Bordetella pertussis. T cells from lung parenchyma and airways of naive and infected mice were refractory to both antigen and mitogen stimulation in the presence of lung macrophages. Furthermore irradiated mononuclear cells from the lungs suppressed antigen and mitogen-induced proliferation, but not IFN-gamma production, by splenic T cells. Removal of macrophages and stimulation of purified lung T cells in the presence of irradiated splenic antigen-presenting cells fully restored the response to mitogen. However, T cells purified from the lung during the acute phase of infection with B. pertussis failed to proliferate or produce detectable levels of IL-2, IL-4, IL-5 or IFN-gamma in response to purified bacterial antigens. In contrast, splenic T cells from these animals produced high levels of IL-2 and IFN-gamma and proliferated strongly to a range of bacterial components. Phenotypic analysis of bronchoalveolar lavage cells during the course of infection revealed transient infiltration of neutrophils, followed by macrophages, CD4+ T cells and smaller numbers of CD8+ T cells and gammadelta+ T cells. Cell surface expression of B7 on infiltrating macrophages and CTLA-4 on T cells did not change significantly during infection. However, expression of the CD28 co-stimulatory molecule was profoundly reduced on lung T cells during the acute phase of infection. In contrast, lung T cells from mice primed by B. pertussis infection or vaccination were resistant to CD28 down-regulation. These results suggest compartmentalization of T cell responses between the lung and the periphery during B. pertussis infection and that B. pertussis may have immunomodulatory properties on local T cell populations in the lungs of naive mice.