In the research field of psychoneuroimmunology, accumulating evidence has indicated the existence of reciprocal communication pathways between nervous, endocrine and immune systems. In this respect, there has been increasing interest in the putative involvement of the immune system in psychiatric disorders. In the present review, the role of proinflammatory cytokines, such as interleukin (IL)-1, tumour necrosis factor (TNF)-alpha and interferon (IFN)-gamma, in the aetiology and pathophysiology of major depression, is discussed. The 'cytokine hypothesis of depression' implies that proinflammatory cytokines, acting as neuromodulators, represent the key factor in the (central) mediation of the behavioural, neuroendocrine and neurochemical features of depressive disorders. This view is supported by various findings. Several medical illnesses, which are characterised by chronic inflammatory responses, e.g. rheumatoid arthritis, have been reported to be accompanied by depression. In addition, administration of proinflammatory cytokines, e.g. in cancer or hepatitis C therapies, has been found to induce depressive symptomatology. Administration of proinflammatory cytokines in animals induces 'sickness behaviour', which is a pattern of behavioural alterations that is very similar to the behavioural symptoms of depression in humans. The central action of cytokines may also account for the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis hyperactivity that is frequently observed in depressive disorders, as proinflammatory cytokines may cause HPA axis hyperactivity by disturbing the negative feedback inhibition of circulating corticosteroids (CSs) on the HPA axis. Concerning the deficiency in serotonergic (5-HT) neurotransmission that is concomitant with major depression, cytokines may reduce 5-HT levels by lowering the availability of its precursor tryptophan (TRP) through activation of the TRP-metabolising enzyme indoleamine-2,3-dioxygenase (IDO). Although the central effects of proinflammatory cytokines appear to be able to account for most of the symptoms occurring in depression, it remains to be established whether cytokines play a causal role in depressive illness or represent epiphenomena without major significance.