Insulin-dependent diabetes is an autoimmune disease specifically targeting the pancreatic beta cells and several observations, both experimental and clinical, suggest that the interaction of the immune system with the beta cells is in part determined by the functional state of the target cells, increased beta cell activity resulting in augmented immunologic mechanisms and vice versa for suppressed beta cell activity and decreased immune attack. In this study we investigated whether cytokine induced islet cell cytotoxicity in vitro was in part dependent on the functional state of the beta cells. Cytotoxicity of cultured rat islets was induced by IL-1 (100 pg/ml) and TNF (62.5 ng/ml) individually and in combination and beta cell activity was modulated by culturing the islets in media containing 3.3, 5.5, 11, and 20 mmol/liter glucose. Both IL-1 and TNF were cytotoxic when administered individually and the combination of IL-1 and TNF was more cytotoxic than either cytokine alone. Maximum cytotoxicity was observed at 11 mmol/liter glucose with cytotoxicity being reduced at 5.5 mmol/liter glucose and further reduced at 3.3 mmol/liter glucose. Interestingly, the degree of cytotoxicity was lower in 20 mmol/liter glucose compared to 11 mmol/liter. These results firmly establish that islet cytotoxicity of IL-1 and TNF is highly dependent on the functional state of the beta cells. This suggests that during the IDDM disease process as some beta cells are destroyed, the compensatory increased activity of the remaining beta cells may increase their susceptibility to cytokine attack. Furthermore, our observations provide rational support for the use of beta cell rest as intervention therapy for IDDM.