Common variable immunodeficiency (CVI) is characterized by hypogammaglobulinemia and recurrent bacterial infections due to failure of CVI B cells to differentiate in vivo into immunoglobulin-secreting plasma cells. We hypothesized that T-cell dysfunction resulting in abnormal contact-mediated B-cell activation may play a prominent role in the failure of CVI B cells to produce specific antibody. We have previously shown that B-cell proliferation and IgE production after stimulation with anti-CD40 and interleukin (IL) 4 were normal in 22 CVI patients evaluated, indicating that CVI B cells respond to signals delivered via CD40. Here we report that CD40 ligand (gp39) mRNA expression by activated lymphocytes from CVI patients (n = 31) as a group was significantly depressed (P < 0.0001) compared with normal controls (n = 32). gp39 mRNA expression by activated lymphocytes from 13 CVI patients fell below the normal control range. T-cell surface expression of functional gp39 protein was correspondingly low in those patients with gp39 mRNA levels below normal control range and normal in patients with gp39 mRNA levels within normal control range. In CVI patients as a group, gp39 mRNA levels correlated with IL-2 mRNA levels (P < 0.002, r = 0.6) and production (P < 0.001, r = 0.7) but not with gene expression or production of other lymphokines evaluated, suggesting an as-yet-undetermined association between gp39 and IL-2 gene regulation. Of the 13 patients whose activated T cells exhibited gp39 mRNA expression below the normal control range, 2 had normal T-cell-derived lymphokine production, whereas the remaining 11 exhibited broader T-cell dysfunction, resulting in IL-2 deficiency, and in some patients deficient production of other lymphokines as well, reflecting a heterogeneity in the underlying mechanisms leading to depressed gp39 expression in these patients. The observation that both gene and surface expression of gp39 by activated T cells is depressed in a subgroup of CVI patients suggests that inefficient signaling via CD40 may be responsible, in part, for failure of B-cell differentiation in these patients.