The proliferative response of peripheral blood T cells to hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg), pre-S antigen and hepatitis B core antigen (HBcAg) has been studied in 20 patients with hepatitis B virus induced chronic active hepatitis (CAH) and in 12 control subjects. Eleven of the 20 CAH patients showed a significant T lymphocyte proliferative response to HBcAg, whereas no proliferation was detectable in response to envelope antigens (HBs and pre-S) in any patient. T cell subset fractionation revealed that HBcAg specific proliferation was limited to the CD4+ (helper/inducer) population. CD8+ (suppressor/cytotoxic) T cells were unresponsive to HBcAg and did not suppress the proliferative response of autologous CD4+ cells. The HBcAg specific T cell proliferative response did not correlate with serum anti-core antibody titres or with biochemical evidence of liver disease. The present results show the selective presence of HBcAg-sensitized T cells in the peripheral blood of patients with HBsAg positive CAH and suggest that the peripheral lymphoid compartment may not reflect immunopathogenetically important cellular events operative at the site of tissue injury.