Activated macrophages produce several matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs), a family of extracellular matrix (ECM)-degrading enzymes, during wound healing and in other inflammatory states. In response to brain injury, brain microglia become "activated," in a way similar to peripheral tissue macrophages, a process which includes differentiation and probably invasion and proliferation. Little is known about the ECM-degrading MMPs that are secreted by microglia upon activation. Thus, it was of interest to determine whether activated microglia secrete MMPs. Conditioned media samples obtained from cultured microglia that were stimulated with various activating agents were subjected to gelatin-substrate zymography. Microglia constitutively express low levels of a 94-kDa gelatinase (GLase) activity. Treatment with LPS, zymosan, and fixed Staphylococcus aureus for 24 hr stimulated the activity of the 94-kDa GLase, 4-20-fold, in a dose-dependent manner. Addition of INF gamma inhibited the LPS-stimulated activity of MMP-9. LPS, zymosan, and fixed Staphylococcus aureus also stimulated the secretion of IL-6 from microglia in a dose-dependent manner. The 94-kDa GLase activity was Ca++ dependent, it was inhibited by 1,10-phenanthroline, and it was activated by organomercurial compounds. When immunoblots were performed using specific antisera against the 94-kDa gelatinase B (MMP-9) with untreated and LPS-stimulated conditioned medium samples, a 94-kDa immunopositive band was observed. Thus, it appears that the 94-kDa GLase is gelatinase B (MMP-9). These results indicate that activators of peripheral macrophages are potent secretagogues for the MMPs in cultured microglia. The ability of activated microglia to secrete MMPs suggests that these enzymes may play an important function in the brain parenchyma during inflammatory states.