Chronic viral hepatitis is characterized by a dramatic lymphocyte infiltrate in the liver. Although it is one of the most common chronic inflammatory diseases in humans, little information is available on the functional state of these intra-hepatic lymphocytes (IHL). To address this issue, we have optimized cytofluorimetric techniques to assess directly ex vivo the functions, dynamics and repertoires of IHL isolated from biopsies of patients with chronic hepatitis C. We estimate that 1% of the total body lymphocytes infiltrate the inflamed liver and find that, at variance with peripheral blood lymphocytes (PBL) isolated from the same patients, most IHL display an activated phenotype and produce Th1 type lymphokines when stimulated in vitro. Virtually all IHL are found in the G0/G1 state of the cell cycle, while a sizeable percentage of them is undergoing programmed cell death in vivo, as detected by the TUNEL assay performed on freshly isolated cells. In contrast again to PBL from the same patients, IHL show a preferential compartmentalization of NK and TCRgamma/delta+ cells, and a remarkable (up to 20-fold) enrichment for Valpha24+ T cells. Together our data suggest that in a liver injured by chronic hepatitis C, most IHL are pro-inflammatory activated cells which are highly enriched for effectors of innate resistance. These IHL do not undergo clonal expansion in the liver but rather display effector function and die in situ at a high rate, suggesting that maintenance of the IHL pool is dependent on continuous migration from extra-hepatic sites.