Membrane lipid microdomains (lipid rafts) play an important role in T cell function by forming areas of high lipid order that facilitate activation. However, their role in regulating T cell differentiation and function remains controversial. In this study, by applying a new approach involving microscopy and flow cytometry, we characterize membrane lipid order in ex vivo primary human CD4(+) T cells. We reveal that differential membrane lipid order dictates the response to TCR stimulation. T cells with high membrane order formed stable immune synapses and proliferated robustly, intermediate order cells had reduced proliferative ability accompanied by unstable immune synapse formation, whereas low order T cells were profoundly unresponsive to TCR activation. We also observed that T cells from patients with autoimmune rheumatic disease had expanded intermediate order populations compared with healthy volunteers. This may be important in dictating the nature of the immune response since most IFN-gamma(+)CD4(+) T cells were confined within intermediate membrane order populations, whereas IL-4(+)CD4(+) T cells were contained within the high order populations. Importantly, we were able to alter T cell function by pharmacologically manipulating membrane order. Thus, the results presented from this study identify that ex vivo CD4(+) T cells sustain a gradient of plasma membrane lipid order that influences their function in terms of proliferation and cytokine production. This could represent a new mechanism to control T cell functional plasticity, raising the possibility that therapeutic targeting of membrane lipid order could direct altered immune cell activation in pathology. The Journal of Immunology, 2011, 186: 3505-3516.