Cytokines have been implicated as mediators and inhibitors of diverse forms of neurodegeneration. They are induced in response to brain injury and have diverse actions that can cause, exacerbate, mediate and/or inhibit cellular injury and repair. Here we review evidence for the contribution of cytokines to acute neurodegeneration, focusing primarily on interleukin 1 (IL-1), tumour necrosis factor-alpha (TNFalpha) and transforming growth factor-beta (TGFbeta). TGFbeta seems to exert primarily neuroprotective actions, whereas TNFalpha might contribute to neuronal injury and exert protective effects. IL-1 mediates ischaemic, excitotoxic and traumatic brain injury, probably through multiple actions on glia, neurons and the vasculature. Understanding cytokine action in acute neurodegeneration could lead to novel and effective therapeutic strategies, some of which are already in clinical trials.