Beginning at the time of insulitis (7 wk of age), CD4+ and CD8+ mature thymocytes from nonobese diabetic (NOD) mice exhibit a proliferative unresponsiveness in vitro after T cell receptor (TCR) crosslinking. This unresponsiveness does not result from either insulitis or thymic involution and is long lasting, i.e., persists until diabetes onset (24 wk of age). We previously proposed that it represents a form of thymic T cell anergy that predisposes to diabetes onset. This hypothesis was tested in the present study by further investigating the mechanism responsible for NOD thymic T cell proliferative unresponsiveness and determining whether reversal of this unresponsiveness protects NOD mice from diabetes. Interleukin 4 (IL-4) secretion by thymocytes from > 7-wk-old NOD mice was virtually undetectable after treatment with either anti-TCR alpha/beta, anti-CD3, or Concanavalin A (Con A) compared with those by thymocytes from age- and sex-matched control BALB/c mice stimulated under identical conditions. NOD thymocytes stimulated by anti-TCR alpha/beta or anti-CD3 secreted less IL-2 than did similarly activated BALB/c thymocytes. However, since equivalent levels of IL-3 were secreted by Con A-activated NOD and BALB/c thymocytes, the unresponsiveness of NOD thymic T cells does not appear to be dependent on reduced IL-2 secretion. The surface density and dissociation constant of the high affinity IL-2 receptor of Con A-activated thymocytes from both strains are also similar. The patterns of unresponsiveness and lymphokine secretion seen in anti-TCR/CD3-activated NOD thymic T cells were also observed in activated NOD peripheral spleen T cells. Exogenous recombinant (r)IL-2 only partially reverses NOD thymocyte proliferative unresponsiveness to anti-CD3, and this is mediated by the inability of IL-2 to stimulate a complete IL-4 secretion response. In contrast, exogenous IL-4 reverses the unresponsiveness of both NOD thymic and peripheral T cells completely, and this is associated with the complete restoration of an IL-2 secretion response. Furthermore, the in vivo administration of rIL-4 to prediabetic NOD mice protects them from diabetes. Thus, the ability of rIL-4 to reverse completely the NOD thymic and peripheral T cell proliferative defect in vitro and protect against diabetes in vivo provides further support for a causal relationship between this T cell proliferative unresponsiveness and susceptibility to diabetes in NOD mice.