To analyze the mechanism by which interferon (IFN)-alpha is effective against human T cell lymphotropic virus type I (HTLV-I)-associated myelopathy/tropical spastic paraparesis (HAM/TSP), we investigated the T cell phenotype and HTLV-I provirus load in peripheral blood mononuclear cells from 25 patients with HAM/TSP that were obtained before and after administration of IFN-alpha. The frequency of memory (CD45RA(-)CD27(+)) T cells that were CD8(high+), CXCR3(+) cell populations, and HTLV-I provirus loads were significantly decreased after treatment. The proportion of memory T cells in the CD8(high+) cell population correlated well with HTLV-I provirus load, whereas the proportion of effector (CD45RA(+)CD27(-)) cells in the CD8(high+) cell population was inversely correlated with provirus load. Interestingly, the frequency of perforin expression in CD8(high+) cells was significantly decreased after treatment in patients who experienced clinical improvement, whereas patients who did not experience clinical improvement showed an increased frequency of perforin expression. Our data suggest that fluctuations in these cell subsets are associated with both the immunomodulatory effect of IFN-alpha and the observed clinical benefit of IFN-alpha treatment in patients with HAM/TSP.