Interleukin 1beta (IL-1beta) is a pleiotropic pro-inflammatory cytokine that plays a key role in mediating cartilage degradation in osteoarticular disorders such as osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). At the cellular level, IL-1beta activates matrix degrading enzymes, down-regulates expression of matrix components and induces chondrocyte apoptosis. Curcumin (diferuloylmethane) is an anti-inflammatory phytochemical agent that has recently been shown to antagonize the pro-inflammatory effects of cytokines in chondrocytes and other cells. To test the hypothesis that curcumin also protects chondrocytes from morphological alterations induced by IL-1beta, we investigated its in vitro effects on apoptotic signalling proteins and key cartilage-specific matrix components in IL-1beta-stimulated chondrocytes. Human articular chondrocytes were pre-treated with 10 ng/mI IL-1beta alone for 30 min before being co-treated with IL-1beta and 50 microM curcumin for 5, 15 or 30 min, respectively. The ultrastructural morphology of chondrocytes was investigated by transmission electron microscopy. The production of collagen type II, the adhesion and signal transduction receptor beta1-integrin, the apoptosis marker activated caspase-3 was analysed by immunohistochemistry, immunoelectron microscopy and Western blotting. Transmission electron microscopy of chondrocytes stimulated with IL-1beta revealed early degenerative changes which were relieved by curcumin co-treatment. The suppression of collagen type II and beta1-integrin synthesis by IL-1beta was inhibited by curcumin. Additionally, curcumin antagonized IL-1beta-induced caspase-3 activation in a time-dependent manner. This study clearly demonstrates that curcumin exerts anti-apoptotic and anti-catabolic effects on IL-1beta-stimulated articular chondrocytes. Therefore curcumin may have novel therapeutic potential as an adjunct nutraceutical chondroprotective agent for treating OA and related osteoarticular disorders.