Ischemia and systemic infection are implicated in the etiology of periventricular white matter injury, a major cause of adverse motor and cognitive outcome in preterm infants. Cytokines are signaling proteins that can be produced as part of the inflammatory response to both ischemia and infection. The aim of this study was to relate cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) concentrations of IL-6, IL-8, IL-10, tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha), and interferon gamma (IFN-gamma) to magnetic resonance-defined white matter injury in preterm infants. Relationships between CSF and plasma cytokine concentrations were also examined. Preterm infants (<or=32 wk) and more mature infants from The Royal Women's Hospital, Melbourne, Australia, and Christchurch Women's Hospital, Christchurch, New Zealand, were eligible for study if they required a clinically indicated lumbar puncture. Plasma samples were obtained in a subgroup of Christchurch infants. Preterm infants underwent advanced quantitative volumetric magnetic resonance imaging using a 1.5-Tesla scanner at term equivalent. One hundred forty-six infants were enrolled and 190 CSF and 42 plasma samples obtained. There was no significant correlation between paired CSF and plasma concentrations for any cytokine. In comparing plasma and CSF concentrations, levels of IL-8 were significantly higher in CSF than plasma. Preterm infants with MRI-defined cerebral white matter injury had higher levels of IL-6, IL-10, and TNF-alpha in the CSF than infants without such injury. Plasma cytokine concentrations may not reflect CSF cytokine levels or inflammatory events within the brain. Elevated CSF levels of cytokines in infants with white matter injury suggest an altered inflammatory balance.