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Mechanisms of thrombocytopenia were studied in 38 patients with mild to moderately severe chronic autoimmune thrombocytopenia (AITP). 51Cr and 111In-labeled autologous platelet turnover studies and in vitro analysis of committed megakaryocyte progenitors (CFU-Meg) were used as independent measures of platelet production. Autologous 111In-labeled platelet localization studies were performed to assess platelet clearance. Although there was no increase in the frequency of marrow CFU-Meg, a specific increase in the CFU-Meg [3H]TdR suicide rate was seen which was inversely correlated with the platelet count (P less than 0.001). Platelet turnover studies showed significant numbers of patients had inappropriate thrombopoietic responses to their reduced platelet counts. Platelet-associated antibody levels correlated inversely with platelet turnover suggesting that antiplatelet antibody impairs platelet production. The circulating platelet count was best predicted by an index relating platelet production (i.e., turnover) to the spleen-liver platelet clearance that correlated directly with platelet survival (P less than 0.001). In summary, both depressed platelet production and increased platelet clearance by the liver and spleen contribute to the thrombocytopenia of AITP.