Chronic immune thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP) is an autoimmune disorder due to antiplatelet autoantibodies, many of which are directed against platelet membrane glycoprotein (GP) IIb-IIIa or GPIb-IX. In a recent study, we described plasma autoantibodies from 13 selected ITP patients, which required the presence of the putative GPIIIa cytoplasmic region for antibody binding. Since this region may not be available for antibody binding under physiologic conditions, we evaluated the frequency of binding to this or other regions of GPIIb- IIIa by platelet-associated and plasma autoantibody from a group of chronic ITP patients. We studied platelet-associated autoantibodies in 27 patients and plasma antibodies in 21 patients; in 15 patients, both were studied. To determine if autoantibodies were directed to the cytoplasmic portion of GPIIIa or to another portion of the GPIIb-IIIa molecule, antibody eluted from patient platelets or plasma antibody was tested in an antigen capture assay for binding to GPIIb-IIIa obtained from Chinese hamster ovary (CHO) cells transfected with GPIIb and either intact GPIIIa or GPIIIa lacking the carboxy terminal 35 residues. Of the 21 plasma autoantibodies tested, 13 bound primarily to the carboxy terminus of GPIIIa and eight to other epitopes. Conversely, all 26 platelet-associated autoantibodies, including eight of the 13 with anti-carboxy terminus antibodies, bound to epitopes in other regions of GPIIb-IIIa. Comparison of the degree of antibody adsorption by intact or lysed platelets indicated that epitopes on the c-terminal region of GPIIIa are relatively inaccessible on the surface of intact washed platelets when compared with other epitopes. We conclude that the importance of plasma autoantibodies in chronic ITP patients should be interpreted cautiously, since their specificity may differ from that of antibodies bound to the platelet. Whether antibodies against the c- terminus of GPIIIa are of pathogenetic importance remains to be determined, although patients with these antibodies have particularly severe disease.