The lymphocyte proliferative response to recall antigens is lost following HIV infection. We sought to devise a means by which the functional immune status of persons in the early stages of HIV infection could be monitored quantitatively. The response to tetanus toxoid was examined in 45 HIV-infected individuals and 11 controls using conventional lymphocyte proliferative assays concurrently with limiting dilution analysis utilizing the secretion of interleukin-2 as the measure of a response. Our data show that the limiting dilution analysis detects tetanus toxoid-reactive T cells in 80% of those tested, as compared to only 44% by proliferation. However, the frequency of tetanus-reactive T cells in HIV-infected individuals (median frequency = 1/59,156) is decrease five-fold as compared to seronegative controls (median frequency = 1/11,599). Longitudinal studies demonstrated a time-dependent decrease in the frequency of tetanus-specific T cell responses in the HIV-infected individuals. Thus, the limiting dilution analysis is a quantitative approach for detecting antigen-specific T cells in HIV-infected individuals, and may be used to monitor changes in T cell function in HIV infection. © 1992 Plenum Publishing Corporation.