Laminin 5 (alpha3beta3gamma2) distribution in the human thymus was investigated by immunofluorescence on frozen sections with anti-alpha3, -beta3, and -gamma2 mAbs. In addition to a linear staining of subcapsular basal laminae, the three mAbs give a disperse staining in the parenchyma restricted to the medullary area on a subset of stellate epithelial cells and vessel structures. We also found that laminin 5 may influence mature human thymocyte expansion; while bulk laminin and laminin 2, when cross-linked, are comitogenic with a TCR signal, cross-linked laminin 5 has no effect. By contrast, soluble laminin 5 inhibits thymocyte proliferation induced by a TCR signal. This is accompanied by a particular pattern of inhibition of early tyrosine kinases, including Zap 70 and p59(fyn) inhibition, but not overall inhibition of p56(lck). Using a mAb specific for alpha6beta4 integrins, we observed that while alpha3beta1 are known to be uniformly present on all thymocytes, alpha6beta4 expression parallels thymocyte maturation; thus a correspondence exists between laminin 5 in the thymic medulla and alpha6beta4 on mature thymocytes. Moreover, the soluble Ab against alpha6beta4 inhibits thymocyte proliferation and reproduces the same pattern of tyrosine kinase phosphorylation suggesting that alpha6beta4 is involved in laminin 5-induced modulation of T cell activation.