Malignant glioma cells are generally resistant or only weakly sensitive to tumor necrosis factor family of cell death-inducing ligands, including TNF-related apoptosis-inducing ligand (TRAIL)/Apo2L. The chemopreventive activity of polyphenolic compounds present in plant-derived food products has been well recognized in epidemiological studies; however, the mechanism of chemoprevention by these dietary constituents largely remains unknown. Curcumin, the yellow pigment in the spice turmeric, has profound anti-inflammatory activity and exhibits chemopreventive and tumor growth inhibitory activity. In the present study, we investigated whether curcumin sensitizes malignant glioma cell lines U251MG and U87MG to TRAIL-induced apoptosis. Treatment with low concentrations (5-20 microM) of curcumin alone had no effect on the viability of either cell line. At low concentration (5 ng/ml) TRAIL induced cytotoxicity in U251MG cells but not in U87MG cells. Whereas curcumin at subtoxic concentration sensitized U87MG cells to TRAIL-induced cytotoxicity, it had no effect on TRAIL-mediated cytotoxicity in U251MG cells. The combined curcumin and TRAIL treatment enhanced accumulation of hypo-diploid U87MG cells in sub G1 cell cycle phase and induced the cleavage of procaspases-3, -8, -9 and release of cytochrome c from mitochondria. These data indicate that curcumin differentially sensitizes glioma cells to TRAIL-induced apoptosis through the activation of both extrinsic (receptor-mediated) and intrinsic (chemical-induced) pathways of apoptosis. These results define a potential use of curcumin to sensitize glioma cells for TRAIL-mediated immunotherapy.