Blastogenesis of autoreactive T lymphocytes in the autologous mixed lymphocyte reaction has been shown to be decreased in patients with primary biliary cirrhosis, but the mechanisms underlying this abnormality are not known. To investigate further the abnormal autologous mixed lymphocyte reaction in primary biliary cirrhosis, we measured the activation of autoreactive helper/inducer and suppressor/cytotoxic T lymphocytes concurrently with blastogenesis in 35 patients with primary biliary cirrhosis and 18 healthy controls. Blastogenesis was diminished in autologous mixed lymphocyte reaction cultures from primary biliary cirrhosis patients compared to the control subjects (25,273 ± 20,259 dpm vs. 36,004 ± 14,951 dpm, p < 0.02), but cultures from patients with primary biliary cirrhosis contained significantly increased percentages of activated helper/inducer and suppressor/cytotoxic T lymphocytes: 20.6 ± 7.9 vs. 15.5 ± 5.3%, p < 0.008, and 9.8 ± 7.8 vs. 5.4 ± 3.0%, p < 0.02, respectively. These findings were not related to the histologic stage of liver disease or to the serum bilirubin concentration and were not associated with abnormalities of lymphocyte subsets in fresh peripheral blood specimens. We conclude that the percentage of autoreactive T lymphocytes in autologous mixed lymphocyte reaction cultures from peripheral blood is increased in patients with primary biliary cirrhosis and diminished blastogenesis in autologous mixed lymphocyte reaction cultures is not due to the loss of autoreactive T lymphocytes from peripheral blood. Diminished blastogenesis reflects a diminished proliferative response of activated, autoreactive T lymphocytes in primary biliary cirrhosis. Possible mechanisms that may account for the paradoxical findings of decreased blastogenesis and increased activation of autoreactive T lymphocytes in primary biliary cirrhosis are discussed.