This work investigates how thymic dysfunction contributes to the depression of cell-mediated immunity in protein-energy malnutrition (PEM). In Bolivian children hospitalized for severe PEM, the size of the thymus was measured by echography, and the lymphocyte subpopulations were detected by using monoclonal antibodies. These data were compared with those obtained from healthy control subjects. Regardless of the clinical form of PEM, our results show a high degree of T lymphocyte immaturity in severely malnourished children, which correlates with a severe involution of the thymus. Before in vitro incubation with thymulin, this significant increase in the percentage of circulating immature T lymphocytes was concomitant with a decrease in mature T lymphocytes and a slight increase in cytotoxic T subpopulations. After in vitro incubation with thymulin, immature T lymphocytes decreased and mature T lymphocytes increased.