The effects of cortisol on the natural killer (NK) activity of human peripheral blood mononuclear (PBM) cells were studied in vitro using a direct 4-h 51Cr-release assay and K 562 cell line as a target. Preincubation for 20 h of PBM cells drawn from healthy donors with 1 X 10(-8) to 1 X 10(-5) M cortisol resulted in a significant decrease of NK cell activity. The magnitude of the suppression was directly related to the steroid concentration and inversely related to the number of effector cells. Cortisol was able to minimize the enhancement of NK cytotoxicity obtainable in the presence of immune interferon (IFN-gamma). A significantly higher suppression was achieved after sequential exposure of PBM cells to cortisol and equimolar levels of prostaglandin E2 (PgE2). The concomitant incubation with theophylline and isobutyl-methylxanthine failed to enhance the cortisol-induced suppression, whereas PgE2-dependent inhibition significantly increased after exposure of PBM cells to methyl-xanthines. The inhibitory effect of cortisol was partially or totally prevented by the concomitant incubation with equimolar amounts of 11-deoxycortisol and RU 486 but not of progesterone. Treatment of NK effectors with a monoclonal anti-human corticosteroid-binding globulin (CBG) antibody produced an enhancement of the spontaneous NK activity and a partial suppression of cortisol-mediated effects. Our results suggest that endogenous glucocorticoids play a role in the regulation of NK cell-mediated cytotoxicity. Since the effect of cortisol was additive to that of PgE2 and was not changed by phosphodiesterase inhibitors, it is conceivable that the hormone acts at a level different from the adenylate cyclase-phosphodiesterase system. Data obtained with the use of antiglucocorticoids and the anti-CBG antibody are compatible with a role both of high-affinity glucocorticoid receptors and of CBG in mediating cortisol action on the human NK cell activity.