We investigated the functional role of the T4 molecule in the activation of T cells by OKT3. T4+ cells were induced to proliferate by OKT3 and erythrocyte rosette-negative accessory cells in the presence or absence of OKT4C, OKT4, and OKT1. OKT4C (IgG1), and not OKT4 (IgG2) or OKT1 (IgG1) inhibited proliferation when OKT4C was added during the first 24 h of cell culture. The inhibition of OKT3 activation by OKT4C did not require Ia+ accessory cells, since T4+ cells could be activated by OKT3 in the presence of Ia- U937 cells, and this activation was markedly inhibited by OKT4C. Furthermore, T4+ cells could be induced to proliferate by OKT3 covalently linked to Sepharose beads, in the absence of any accessory cells. Under these conditions, OKT4C, but not OKT4 or OKT1 significantly inhibited proliferation. These data demonstrate that at least one mechanism by which anti-T4 antibodies inhibit T cell activation is independent of any putative role of T4 molecules in the recognition of Ia on target cells. The data are compatible with the idea that perturbation of the T4 molecules can transmit a negative signal to T4+ cells.