Ceramide produced by hydrolysis of plasma membrane sphingomyelin (SM) in different cells including brain cells in response to proinflammatory cytokines [tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha), interleukin-1beta (IL-1beta)] plays an important role in coordinating cellular responses to stress, growth suppression, and apoptosis. The present study underlines the importance of IL-10 and IL-13, cytokines with potent antiinflammatory properties, in inhibiting the proinflammatory cytokine (TNF-alpha and IL-1beta)-mediated degradation of SM to ceramide in rat primary astrocytes. Treatment of rat primary astrocytes with TNF-alpha or IL-1beta led to rapid degradation of SM to ceramide, whereas IL-10 and IL-13 by themselves were unable to induce the degradation of SM to ceramide. Interestingly, both IL-10 and IL-13 prevented proinflammatory cytokine-induced degradation of SM to ceramide. Both IL-10 and IL-13 caused rapid activation of phosphatidylinositol (PI) 3-kinase, and inhibition of that kinase activity by wortmannin and LY294002 potently blocked the inhibitory effect of IL-10 and IL-13 on proinflammatory cytokine-mediated induction of ceramide production. This study suggests that the inhibition of proinflammatory cytokine-mediated degradation of SM to ceramide by IL-10 and IL-13 is mediated through the activation of PI 3-kinase. As ceramide induces apoptosis and IL-10 and IL-13 inhibit the induction of ceramide production, we examined the effect of IL-10 and IL-13 on proinflammatory cytokine-mediated apoptosis. Inhibition of TNF-alpha-induced apoptosis by IL-10 and IL-13 suggests that the antiapoptotic nature of IL-10 and IL-13 is probably due to the inhibition of ceramide production.