The effect of interleukin-1 beta (IL 1 beta) on spatial learning was examined. In one experiment, C57BL/6 mice were given daily injections (100 ng/mouse) of recombinant murine IL1 beta prior to training on the Morris water maze. In another experiment, mice were infected with a sublethal dose of a gram-negative bacterium (Legionella pneumophila; Lp). Mice rendered ill by the infection were given either anti-IL1 beta antibodies (100 micrograms/mouse) or saline and then trained on the water maze. Results indicated that (1) exogenous IL1 beta blocked acquisition of spatial learning, (2) Lp infection attenuated learning on this task, and (3) neutralizing circulating IL1 beta in Lp-infected mice normalized learning despite the continuation of the illness. The data indicate that cognitive impairment may be a component of cytokine-mediated sickness behavior.