The cytokine IL-12 promotes Th(1)type immune responses and plays a key role in immune regulation. The complex nature of IL-12 hampered its detection without use of stimulants that might give less relevant information. To detect circulating IL-12 p40, we developed enzyme-linked immunospot (ELISPOT) assays that allow enumeration of IL-12 p40 secreting cells without prior in vitro stimulation of the cells. In parallel, intracellular staining of IL-12 p40 by flow cytometry was performed to compare the two methods. IL-12 p40 secreting cells were detected in healthy subjects at a mean number of 103+/-155 per 10(5)blood mononuclear cells (MNC). Numbers of IL-12 p40 secreting blood MNC correlated with IL-12 p40 positive blood MNC detected by flow cytometry. Bacterial endotoxins and the inflammatory cytokines TNF-alpha and IFN-gamma control IL-12 production by antigen presenting cells. Utilizing IL-12 p40 ELISPOT assays, we could confirm occurrence of elevated numbers of IL-12 p40 secreting blood MNC after stimulation with TNF-alpha, IFN-gamma, LPS, LPS+TNF-alpha or LPS+IFN-gamma, compared to cultures without stimulant. Due to its central role in inflammation and autoimmunity, IL-12 is an attractive target for immunotherapy. IL-12 p40 ELISPOT assays represent a sensitive, specific and reliable tool for investigating the role of IL-12 in both health and disease.