Recently, we reported the functional expression of CD86 on cultured human Langerhans cells derived from normal epidermis. In the present study, we investigated the expression and function of co-stimulatory molecules in the pathogenesis of atopic dermatitis. In immunohistochemical analysis, CD80 and/or CD86 were detected on dendritic-shaped cells not only in the epidermis but also in the dermis in the inflammatory lesions of atopic dermatitis (n = 12). CD80 was expressed in only five cases (42%), while CD86 was expressed in all cases (100%). These molecules were not detected in normal control subjects (n = 8). In non-lesional skin of atopic dermatitis (n = 4), CD86 but not CD80 was detected in one case. CD86 was preferentially induced on dendritic-shaped cells in positive patch test sites to Dermatophagoides pteronyssinus or house dust allergen in atopic dermatitis (n = 4). The CD80- or CD86-positive cells were confirmed as Langerhans cells by double immunostaining using anti-CD1a monoclonal antibody. Neither CD86 nor CD80 was detected on keratinocytes. Similar results of the stronger expression of CD86 over that of CD80 were obtained from psoriasis vulgaris (n = 11) and from contact dermatitis (n = 7), although CD86 was expressed only in 57% of the contact dermatitis cases. The percentage of Langerhans cells positive for CD86 was higher than for CD80, i.e. 48% compared with 9%, respectively, in the epidermis of lesional skin of atopic dermatitis (n = 8). The expression rate of these molecules on Langerhans cells increased in the dermis. To investigate the function of co-stimulatory molecules on Langerhans cells in atopic dermatitis, we conducted an inhibition test with antibodies. Anti-CD86 monoclonal antibody almost completely inhibited T-cell proliferation stimulated with crude extract of D. pteronyssinus in the presence of epidermal cells as antigen-presenting cells, whereas anti-CD80 monoclonal antibody produced less of an inhibitory effect. These data indicate that CD86 expressed on Langerhans cells may play an important part in the pathogenesis of atopic dermatitis.