Single injections of recombinant human interleukin 1 beta (IL-1 beta) caused large (up to 2 degrees C) and sustained (3 h) increases in body temperature in conscious rats. Intracerebroventricular injections (10-100 ng) were much more effective and elicited greater responses than intravenous injections (0.1-1 microgram). IL-1 beta increased resting oxygen consumption by 25-49% in a dose-dependent manner. The activity of the thermogenic proton conductance pathway in brown adipose tissue (BAT) mitochondria was assessed from purine nucleotide (GDP) binding and was elevated by 40 and 86% 1 h after intravenous (1 microgram) or intracerebroventricular (100 ng) injection of IL-1 beta, respectively. Regional tissue blood flow was determined in anesthetized rats from the distribution of radiolabeled microspheres. Blood flow to liver (hepatic arterial), testes, skin, and white adipose tissue was unaffected by IL-1 beta injection. Blood flow to brain and kidney was increased (142 and 50%) but reduced (58%) to skeletal muscle after intravenous but not intracerebroventricular injection of interleukin. In contrast, blood flow to BAT was markedly elevated after intravenous (288%) or intracerebroventricular (382%) injection of IL-1 beta. Severing the sympathetic nerves supplying the interscapular BAT depot prevented the increase in blood flow. These data indicate that the potent pyrogenic effects of IL-1 beta in the rat are due largely to a central action. Fever is associated with increases in metabolic rate and BAT activity, and these results provide support for the involvement of brown fat in thermogenesis associated with fever.