BACKGROUND: Compromised T-cell responses to periodontal pathogens may contribute to the pathogenesis of generalized aggressive periodontitis (GAgP). In this study, we attempted to characterize T-helper cell (Th1, Th2, and Th17) responses in patients with GAgP and healthy controls upon stimulation with disease-relevant pathogens. METHODS: Mononuclear cells (MNCs) from 10 white patients with GAgP and 10 white controls were stimulated with Porphyromonas gingivalis American Type Culture Collection (ATCC) 33277 (Pg), Prevotella intermedia ATCC 25611, Fusobacterium nucleatum ATCC 49256 (Fn), and similar bacteria isolated from the participants' inherent oral flora. Tetanus toxoid (TT) was used as control antigen. The resulting production of interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma) and interleukin (IL)-2, -4, -5 and -17 and the induced proliferation of CD4+ T cells were measured. RESULTS: MNCs from patients with GAgP exhibited decreased IL-2 responses to Pg and Fn. No difference was observed between patients with GAgP and controls with regard to CD4+ T-cell proliferation or the production of IFN-gamma and IL-4, -5, and -17, irrespective of whether type strains or bacteria isolated from the participants' oral cavity were used for stimulation. Moreover, similar proliferative and cytokine responses to TT were observed. Notably, smoking patients with GAgP exhibited significantly lower IFN-gamma responses to the bacteria and to TT than non-smoking patients or controls. CONCLUSIONS: The decreased IL-2 responses of patients with GAgP to Pg and Fn combined with adequate IL-2 responses to TT suggest an impaired antigen-specific T-cell reactivity with periodontal pathogens in GAgP. The decreased IFN-gamma responses of smokers within the patient group suggest that smoking may aggravate this impairment.