The cytotoxic T-lymphocyte (CTL) response to HTLV-1 is directed mainly against the Tax protein. Circulating, activated Tax-specific CTL can be found in a majority of healthy carriers and patients with the HTLV-1-associated disease tropical spastic paraparesis (HAM/TSP). In this study we present data on the Tax-specific CTL response of 26 HTLV-1 carriers, including 10 newly recruited subjects. Rex-specific CTL were not found in any subjects investigated. Activated and memory CTL responses were determined separately in 4 healthy carriers, 3 HAM/TSP patients, and 1 'seronegative HAM/TSP'. In all subjects, the mean frequency of peptide-specific memory cells per epitope (1/1307) was high. There was no significant difference in mean memory CTL frequency per epitope or in the proportion of subjects with activated CTL between healthy carriers and HAM/TSP patients. One individual with HAM/TSP had an unusually high frequency response to two peptides, suggesting immunodominance of epitope recognition in this individual. We conclude that the magnitude and components of the HTLV-1-specific CTL response do not differ between healthy carriers and HAM/TSP patients. These data do not support a specific CTL-mediated component in the pathogenesis of HAM/TSP.