Patients with both acute and chronic autoimmune thrombocytopenic purpura (AITP) have in vitro lymphocyte defects in the form of platelet- stimulated proliferation and cytokine secretion. A blinded study was performed to determine if these defects are related to serum cytokine levels and/or platelet antigen expression. Compared with controls, 53% of children with chronic AITP, but only 9% of those with acute AITP, had increased serum interleukin-2 (IL-2), interferon-gamma, and/or IL- 10; however, none of the patients had detectible serum levels of IL-4 or IL-6, cytokine patterns suggesting and early CD4+ Th0 and Th1 cell activation. In children with chronic AITP, the levels of serum IL-2 correlated with in vitro platelet-stimulated IL-2 production. Few (17%) patients with AITP showed platelet activation, as measured by CD62 expression, or abnormal expression levels of platelet membrane glycoprotein (GP) IIbIIIa, but abnormal GPIb levels were observed in one-third of children with AITP. In contrast to normal controls and patients with nonimmune thrombocytopenia, a significant number of children with acute (80%), chronic (71%), or chronic-complex (55%) AITP and GPIb+ peripheral blood cells expressing HLA-DR. HLA-DR was variably coexpressed on distinct smaller and larger-sized GPIb+ cell populations with CD41, CD45, CD14, CD80, and/or glycophorin molecules. GPIb+ cells isolated from spleens of patients with chronic AITP had high expression (49% +/- 30%) of HLA-DR and splenic T cells had a high level of in vitro platelet-stimulated IL-2 secretion compared with controls. Platelet HLA-DR expression correlated inversely with platelet count, but not with therapy, serum cytokines, or in vitro lymphocyte antiplatelet reactivity. The results indicate that platelet HLA-DR expression is a common occurrence in patients with immune thrombocytopenia, whereas a large subpopulation of children with chronic AITP can be identified by increased serum cytokine levels and in vitro platelet-stimulated IL-2 secretion by lymphocytes, suggesting that differences exist in the immune pathogenesis of acute and chronic AITP, particularly at the level of platelet reactive T cells.