The opioid peptides alpha- and beta-endorphin and [D-Ala2, Met5]enkephalin were investigated for their effect on the proliferation of resting and activated rat splenic lymphocytes in vitro. beta-Endorphin enhanced the proliferative response of spleen cells to the T cell mitogens concanavalin A and phytohemagglutinin. The effect of beta-endorphin was dose dependent and occurred at peptide concentrations similar to those found in rat plasma. alpha-Endorphin and [D-Ala2, Met5]enkephalin did not affect the proliferative responses to any mitogen tested. Furthermore, the potentiating effect of beta-endorphin was not reversed by treatment with 10 microM naloxone. None of the peptides had any effect on resting, unstimulated spleen cells or on the response to a mixture of lipopolysaccharide and dextran sulfate, which is specifically mitogenic for B lymphocytes. The pharmacological properties of the beta-endorphin potentiation indicate that the effect may be mediated by a nonopiate but beta-endorphin-specific mechanism. These results suggest a possible role for peripheral beta-endorphin and may provide a link between stress and disease susceptibility.