The molecular and cellular basis of long-term T cell memory against viral antigens is still largely undefined. To characterize anti-viral protection by memory T cells against non-cytopathic viruses able to cause acute self-limited and chronic infections, such as the hepatitis B virus (HBV), we studied HLA class II restricted responses against HBV structural antigens in 17 patients with acute hepatitis B, during the acute stage of infection and 2.2 to 13 yr after clinical resolution of disease. Results indicate that: (a) significant T cell proliferative responses to HBV nucleocapsid antigens were detectable in all patients during the acute phase of infection and in 14/17 also 2-13 yr after clinical resolution of disease; b) long-lasting T cell responses were sustained by CD45RO+T cells, predominantly expressing the phenotype of recently activated cells; c) limiting dilution analysis showed that in some patients the frequency of HBV-specific T cells was comparable to that observed in the acute stage of infection and, usually, higher than in patients with chronic HBV infection; d) the same amino acid sequences were recognized by T cells in the acute and recovery phases of infection; and e) HBV-DNA was detectable by nested-PCR in approximately half of the subjects. to conclusion, our results show that vigorous anti-viral T cell responses are detectable in vitro several years after clinical recovery from acute hepatitis B. Detection of minute amounts of virus in some recovered subjects suggests that long-term maintenance of an active anti-viral T cell response could be important not only for protection against reinfection but also for keeping the persisting virus under tight control.