Our recent study suggested the reverse relationship between the production of interleukin-10 (IL-10) and IL-12 in dendritic cells (DCs) activated by lipopolysaccharide (LPS) or LPS plus interferon (IFN)-gamma. In the present study, a series of experiments were performed to investigate the mechanisms responsible for this reverse relationship. Our results showed that neutralization of the secreted IL-10 by antibody could enhance the production of IL-12. Neutralization of IL-12 by antibody did not affect the IL-10 production. Addition of exogenous IL-10 suppressed the production of IL-12 by activated DCs, and addition of exogenous IL-12 did not affect IL-10 production. TaqMan real-time reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction supported the fact that the observed effects occurred at mRNA transcription level. We also found that LPS or LPS plus IFN-gamma significantly enhanced the phosphorylation of extracellular signal-regulated protein kinase (ERK) and p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase. In addition, inhibition of ERK by PD98059 significantly suppressed IL-10 and increased the IL-12 production. Exogenous IL-10 reversed the upregulated production of IL-12 induced by PD98059. The above findings suggest a unidirectional negative autocrine regulation of IL-12 by IL-10 in activated DCs and that activation of ERK involves the differential production of IL-10 and IL-12 by activated DCs. Thus, the regulation of differential production of IL-10 and IL-12 may play an important role for DCs in priming T helper 1 (Th1) or Th2 in the immune responses.