Extensively oxidized low density lipoprotein (ox-LDL), a modulator of atherogenesis, down-regulates the lipopolysaccharide (LPS)-induced activation of transcription factor NF-kappaB. We investigated whether 4-hydroxynonenal (HNE), a prominent aldehyde component of ox-LDL, represents one of the inhibitory substances. NF-kappaB activation by stimuli such as LPS, interleukin (IL)-1beta, and phorbol ester, but not tumor necrosis factor (TNF), was reversibly inhibited by HNE in a dose-dependent manner in human monocytic cells, whereas AP-1 binding was unaffected. Using similar HNE concentrations, LPS-induced kappaB- and TNF or IL-8 promoter-dependent transcription was prevented. Furthermore, pretreatment with HNE suppressed TNF production but not lactate dehydrogenase levels. Under these conditions the binding of LPS to monocytic cells was not significantly affected. However, induced proteolysis of the inhibitory proteins IkappaB-alpha, IkappaB-beta, and, at a later time point, IkappaB-epsilon was prevented. This is not due to inhibition of the proteasome, the major proteolytic activities of which remain unaffected, but rather to a specific prevention of the activation-dependent phosphorylation of IkappaB-alpha. This is the first report which demonstrates that HNE specifically inhibits the NF-kappaB/Rel system. Down-modulation of NF-kappaB-regulated gene expression may contribute at certain stages of atherosclerosis to low levels of chronic inflammation and may also be involved in other inflammatory/degenerative diseases.