The effects of recombinant gp120 on the proliferative responses and cytokine production by normal peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) were investigated. gp120 inhibited in a dose-dependent fashion the anti-CD3 monoclonal antibody (MAb)- and concanavalin A-induced proliferative responses. The production of interleukin-2 (IL-2) and IL-4 was diminished by gp120 in the anti-CD3- and concanavalin A-stimulated cultures. In unstimulated PBMC, gp120 induced the production of considerable amounts of IL-10, gamma interferon, and tumor necrosis factor alpha. The gp120-induced reduction in the proliferative responses of PBMC was at least partially reversed by the addition of IL-2, anti-CD28 MAb, or transfectants expressing CD80, CD86, or CD40 but not with exogenous IL-4. Also, a neutralizing anti-IL-10 MAb reversed the inhibitory effect of gp120 on the proliferative responses whereas exogenous IL-10 further enhanced this inhibitory effect. These findings indicate that IL-10 plays an important role in the inhibitory effect of gp120 on PBMC proliferation. The ratio of CD3+CD4+ to CD3+CD8+ T cells was the same in gp120-treated and untreated cell cultures. No apoptosis in these two T-cell populations was observed. However, the number of activated CD3+CD4+ T cells and CD3+CD8+ T cells, as judged by CD25, CD69, and HLA-DR expression, was consistently reduced. gp120 induced the expression of IL-10 in the monocyte/macrophage population, and therefore gp120 also reduced the proliferative responses of CD4+ T-cell-depleted PBMC. Taken together, our observations point to the importance of the cytokine pattern changes and, in particular, the role of IL-10 (produced by the monocytes) in the inhibitory effect of gp120. This mechanism of gp120-induced immunosuppression, if operative in vivo, could contribute to the depressed immune responses associated with human immunodeficiency virus infection and thus have important implications for immunotherapeutic strategies to slow down disease progression in AIDS.