The parallelism between serum levels of heroin and morphine (M) metabolites and the production of interleukin-1beta (IL-1beta), interleukin-2 (IL-2), interleukin-10 (IL-10), tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha), transforming growth factor-beta1 (TGF-beta1), and interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma) from murine splenocyte cultures following s.c. injection with 20 mg/kg heroin or M in C57/BL mice is described. The pharmacokinetic profiles of M and inactive morphine-3-glucuronide (M3G) in morphine-treated mice nearly overlapped those in heroin-treated mice, with the only difference being the presence of 6-monoacetylmorphine (AM) in profiles of the latter group. Heroin and M significantly increased production of IL-1beta, IL-2, TNF-alpha and IFN-gamma at 3, 20 and 40 min from treatment, peaking at 20 min, though the effect was very brief. At 24 h production was greatly inhibited, and this depressive effect lasted longer than the stimulatory effect. At 48 h only a partial recovery was observed. Heroin and M also had a highly stimulatory effect on the release of anti-inflammatory cytokines such as TGF-beta1 and IL-10, though this effect was observed after 120 min, peaking at 24 h and then somewhat decreasing at 48 h. This study demonstrates that the more rapid and pronounced immune response to heroin treatment was due to the presence of AM. Both heroin and M produced a biphasic effect on cytokine production: the central opioid or non-opioid receptors are involved in exogenous opiod-induced stimulatory effects, whereas peripheral opioid or non-opioid receptors are involved in depressive effects. Deficient or excess expression of these key mediators may predispose the host to aberrant defence mechanisms.