This report compares the ability of cyclosporin A and FK-506 to inhibit human T cell activation triggered via cell surface molecules that utilize different intracellular processes. We stimulated highly purified peripheral blood T lymphocytes with mitogens (Con A and PHA), ionomycin + PMA, or monoclonal antibodies specific for cell surface antigens involved in activation (CD2, CD3, CD28) either in combination with each other or in conjunction with PMA. Using measurements of the proliferative response, IL-2 production, and changes in intracellular Ca2+ ([Ca2+]i), we demonstrate that FK-506 exerts its inhibitory effect on early events of T-cell activation in a manner indistinguishable from that of CsA. An important finding in this study is the strict correlation between those activation pathways that are inhibited by FK-506 and CsA and the requirement that the sensitive pathways induce a measurable rise in [Ca2+]i. This correlation held even for the CD28/CD2 pathway which was previously shown to be calcium-independent; however by employing FACS analysis of [Ca2+]i within individual cells, a subset of cells activated via CD28/CD2 was found to respond with a measurable rise in [Ca2+]i. We also noted that the proliferative response induced by certain stimuli, such as ionomycin + PMA and PHA + PMA, was partially resistant to FK-506 and CsA, while IL-2 production was completely suppressed. The partial FK-506/CsA-resistance of these responses was shown to be determined by the amount of PMA added to the cultures. We conclude from our investigations that FK-506 and CsA inhibit highly similar signal transduction pathways in human T lymphocytes.