The effect of hypoxia-ischemia (HI) on IL-1, and IL-6 bioactivity in relation to expression of IL-1 alpha, IL-1 beta, and IL-6 mRNA was studied, and the neuroprotective efficacy of IL-1 receptor antagonist (IL-1ra) was evaluated in neonatal rats. HI was induced in 7-d-old rats by unilateral carotid artery ligation and hypoxia for 70-100 min. Animals were killed at different time points up to 14 d after HI, and brains were analyzed for IL-1 and IL-6 bioactivity using bioassays and for mRNA for IL-1 alpha, IL-1 beta, and IL-6 with reverse transcription followed by a polymerase chain reaction. In separate animals, IL-1ra was administered intracerebrally before or after HI, and the extent of brain injury was assessed 14 d after HI. A transient increase of IL-1 bioactivity occurred after HI, reaching a peak at 6 h of recovery. IL-1 beta mRNA followed a similar time course but attained maximum expression at 3 h. IL-6 bioactivity and mRNA were also stimulated by HI and followed a similar time course as IL-1. Pretreatment with IL-1ra reduced HI brain damage from 54.4 +/- 9.3 to 41.4 +/- 10.0% (p < or = 0.01), and IL-1ra posttreatment increased the proportion of animals devoid of brain injury (40%) compared with vehicle-treated controls (13%) (p < or = 0.05). In conclusion, a transient activation of IL-1 and IL-6 occurred after HI, and IL-1ra reduced HI brain injury to a moderate degree.