This paper describes the interactions between dendritic cells (DC) and T helper (Th) cells in the rat mixed lymphocyte reaction (MLR). Th blasts that are actively proliferating were generated in a 5 d primary MLR; resting Th memory cells were derived from a 10-12 d MLR. The DC were purified from thoracic duct lymph derived from rats whose mesenteric lymph nodes had been removed. The results show that DC are the major stimulators in the primary MLR and also for the restimulation of Th blasts and Th memory cells. Th blasts rapidly formed large clusters when cultured with DC but not with Ia+ macrophages or B cells. This interaction was not dependent on a major histocompatibility complex (MHC) difference between the T blasts and the DC. Con A-activated T and B blasts also formed clusters when cultured with DC. Th memory cells formed small clusters with DC, but, in a different assay in which clusters are dispersed, we detected an antigen-specific interaction between Th memory cells and DC. The monoclonal antibodies W3/25 (anti-rat CD4) and MRC OX-6 (anti-MHC class II) blocked proliferation in the primary MLR and also inhibited the restimulation of Th memory cells. However, the restimulation of Th blasts in a secondary MLR was only blocked by MRC OX-6. These results suggest that there are different requirements for the restimulation of T blasts than for the activation of primary or memory Th cells. W3/25 and MRC OX-6 did not affect the clustering of T blasts with DC but they both inhibited the antigen-specific binding of Th memory cells to DC. The data suggest that the CD4 (W3/25) antigen is involved in antigen-specific interactions between Th cells and DC.