IL-18 was originally described as a cytokine which induced IFN-gamma production by established Th1 cells in an IL-12-independent manner. However, subsequent studies demonstrated that exogenous IL-18 in the absence of IL-12 failed to drive Th1 differentiation of naive cells and induced IFN-gamma from established Th1 cells only in combination with IL-12. We have examined the role of endogenous IL-18 in controlling Th1 lineage commitment. When naive TCR-transgenic T cells were stimulated with antigen, anti-IL-18 antibodies resulted in partial inhibition of IFN-gamma production, but did not inhibit Th1 differentiation. To distinguish whether the inhibitory effect of anti-IL-18 antibodies was mediated directly by blocking IFN-gamma production or indirectly by blocking IL-12Rbeta2 up-regulation, naive T cells from IL-12 - / - mice were stimulated with anti-CD3 and IL-18. These cells failed to produce IFN-gamma, but markedly up-regulated IL-12Rbeta2 expression. We propose that the major effect of IL-18 on Th1 development is mediated by up-regulation of IL-12Rbeta2 expression, thereby enhancing IL-12-mediated signaling. The enhancement of IL-12Rbeta2 expression by IL-18 may be particularly important for the differentiation of foreign antigen- or autoantigen-specific Th1 cells when the stimulatory concentration of IL-12 in the microenvironment is just below the threshold required for Th1 development.