The cytokine interleukin 1 (IL-1) has diverse actions in the brain. In normal brain the IL-1 system is expressed at low levels and is upregulated rapidly in response to local or peripheral insults. IL-1 mediates host defence responses to local and systemic disease and injury (e.g. fever, slow-wave sleep, appetite suppression and neuroendocrine responses) and to neuroinflammation and cell death in neurodegenerative conditions, such as stroke and head injury. It has also been implicated in chronic degenerative diseases, in particular, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. The mechanisms regulating the expression and action of IL-1 are poorly understood, but involve multiple effects on neuronal, glial and endothelial cell function. Thus, the IL-1 system provides an attractive and intensely competitive target for therapeutic intervention.