beta-Amyloid protein (A beta) is the major component of the senile plaques in Alzheimer's disease (AD), and microglial cells have been shown to be closely associated with these plaques. However, the roles of A beta and microglial cells in pathogenesis of AD remain unclear. Incubation of rat microglial cells with A beta(1-40) caused a significant increase in nitrite, a stable metabolite of nitric oxide (NO), in culture media, while there was no detectable increase in nitrite in astrocyte-rich glial cells or cortical neurons after incubation with A beta(1-40). Nitrite production by microglial cells was also induced by A beta(1-42), but not A beta(25-35). An inhibitor of NO synthase, NG-monomethyl-L-arginine (NMMA), as well as dexamethasone and actinomycin D, dose-dependently inhibited this nitrite production. Among the various cytokines investigated such as interleukin-1, interleukin-6, tumor necrosis factor-alpha and interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma), only IFN-gamma markedly enhanced A beta-dependent nitrite production. Cultured cortical neurons were injured by microglial cells stimulated with A beta in a dose-dependent manner in the presence of IFN-gamma. Neurotoxicity caused by the A beta plus IFN-gamma-stimulated microglial cells was significantly attenuated by NMMA. Thus, although further investigations into the effect of A beta on human microglial cells are needed, it is likely that A beta-induced NO production by microglial cells is one mechanism of the neuronal death in AD.