To investigate whether autoantibodies against CD4-positive lymphocytes might induce helper dysfunction, autoantibody formation and T-cell function was examined simultaneously in 61 hemophilia patients. Twenty patients were human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)-negative, 26 HIV- positive stage CDC II or III, and 15 were HIV-positive stage CDC IV. T lymphocytes, CD4-positive, or CD8-positive T subsets were cocultured with B lymphocytes and pokeweed mitogen (PWM) for 6 days and Ig- secreting cells were assessed in a reverse hemolytic plaque assay. The presence of IgM, IgG, C3d, or gp120 on the surface of T cells or T subsets was analyzed by flow cytometry. Autoantibodies against CD4- positive T cells were not detected in controls or HIV-negative patients, but were common in HIV-positive patients (20 of 41 patients). In patients with autoantibodies we found an increased incidence of CD4 helper defects (P less than .0001 in CDC II or III patients; P less than .02 in CDC IV patients). 12 of 13 patients with IgM autoantibodies and 4 of 4 with IgG autoantibodies showed CD4 helper defects. Complement fixation had no relevance. Autoantibody formation against CD4 cells was not due to increased in vivo B-cell stimulation (spontaneous plaque formation: 611 +/- 204 PFC/10(6) B cells in autoantibody-negative patients v 650 +/- 202 PFC/10(6) B cells in autoantibody-positive patients; not significant). Thus, our results suggest that autoantibody formation is not caused by a general state of in vivo B-cell activation. Rather, the production of autoantibodies appears to coincide with defects in B-cell proliferation or differentiation, as shown by reduced mitogen-stimulated B-cell responses in CDC II and III patients (P less than .05). Autoantibodies against CD4 cells appear to be involved in the pathogenesis of CD4 helper defects of HIV-infected patients.