CD8(+) T cells are known to down-regulate the TCR complex upon ligation with its cognate MHC class I-peptide complex. In the present report, we demonstrate that stimulation of CD8(+) T cells with cytokines also leads to down-regulation of the TCR complex and TCR-associated surface molecules. A significant reduction of TCRalpha beta, CD3, CD8alpha and CD8beta surface expression was observed when CD8(+) T cells were cultured in IL-2 and to a lesser extent in IL-4 or IL-15. The down-regulation was apparent after 2 days of culture and was observed at IL-2 concentrations as low as 10 U/ml. Using TCR transgenic mice, we found that the down-regulation was associated with a decreased affinity of CD8(+) T cells to MHC class I-peptide complexes, as determined by MHC class I tetramer staining. Furthermore, the antigen-specific proliferation of IL-2-pre-activated CD8(+) T cells was significantly reduced compared to naive CD8(+) T cells or to CD8(+) T cells previously stimulated with peptide-pulsed dendritic cells. Moreover, only CD8alpha(high) but not CD8alpha(low) cells sorted from IL-2-activated CD8(+) T cells proliferated in response to specific antigen, although both subsets proliferated equally well to IL-2. Taken together, these data suggest that the down-regulation of TCR components and a subsequent decrease in affinity towards MHC class I-peptide complexes may be a mechanism by which TCR-dependent proliferation of non-specifically activated CD8(+) T cells is avoided.