Bipolar I disorder (BD) has a poorer longer-term outcome than previously thought, with persistent cognitive impairment and functional decline. The neurobiological underpinnings that might underlie these changes remain unknown. Changes in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) levels and cytokines are potential candidates. The aim of this study was to examine both cytokine and BDNF levels and their relationship in BD patients in the early and late stages of the disorder. We measured serum BDNF, TNF-alpha, IL-6 and IL-10 levels in a total of 60 patients with BD I and we compared those in early stages of illness with those in late stages of illness and also compared both groups with 60 matched healthy controls. BDNF was decreased only in those patients in the late stage of bipolar disorder. Moreover, BDNF levels were negatively correlated with length of illness. In contrast, all interleukins and TNF-alpha were increased in the early stages of BD, compared to controls. While TNF-alpha and IL-6 continued to be significantly higher than controls at late stages of BD, IL-10 did not. When levels were compared between patients at early and late stages of illness, there was a significant decrease in BDNF and IL-6 in the later stage of BD compared to the early stage. Inversely, TNF-alpha showed a significant increase at the later stage. Failure of inflammatory defences in the late stage of the disorder may account for reduction in BDNF and continued elevations in cytokines; thus these may have the potential to serve as markers of illness progression in BD.