Ulcerative colitis (UC), a chronic inflammatory bowel disease, exhibits pronounced increase of T lymphocytes in the inflamed mucosa. To understand the role of intestinal T lymphocytes in the pathogenesis of UC their cytokine production in the mucosa was analysed. Intestinal T lymphocytes of UC, Crohn's disease and control patients were analysed for cytokine mRNA levels by real-time quantitative reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) directly after isolation without in vitro stimulation. Frequencies of cytokine positive cells were determined in UC and control colon by immunomorphometry. T lymphocytes in normal colon expressed interleukin (IL)-2, interferon (IFN)-γ, tumour necrosis factor (TNF)-α and transforming growth factor (TGF)-β1, but not IL-4, IL-5 or IL-10. In UC, a highly significant increase in IL-10 mRNA levels in T lymphocytes and an increased frequency of IL-10 positive cells was seen in colon. IL-10 mRNA levels were also elevated in T lymphocytes of the non-inflamed ileum and correlated with disease activity at both locations. CD4+ T lymphocytes were the major source of IL-10 mRNA. IL-2, IFN-γ and TNF-α mRNA levels were decreased in colonic T lymphocytes, and virtually no IL-2, IFN-γ, TNF-α or TGF-β positive cells were detected in basal lymphoid aggregates. However, scattered IL-10 positive cells were found here. Lamina propria outside the aggregates contained IL-10-, IFN-γ, TNF-α and TGF-β but not IL-2 positive cells. T cells of UC patients did not express IL-4 or IL-5. Taken, together the data suggest a generalized activation of IL-10 producing CD4+ T cells along the intestine of UC patients. The local environment seems to determine the biological consequences of elevated IL-10.