Cytokine modulation by glucocorticoids: mechanisms and actions in cellular studies

Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 1996;10 Suppl 2:81-90; discussion 91-2. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2036.1996.22164025.x.


Glucocorticoids inhibit the expression and action of most cytokines. This is part of the in vivo feed-back system between inflammation-derived cytokines and CNS-adrenal produced corticosteroids with the probable physiological relevance to balance parts of the host defence and anti-inflammatory systems of the body. Glucocorticoids modulate cytokine expression by a combination of genomic mechanisms. The activated glucocorticoid-receptor complex can (i) bind to and inactivate key proinflammatory transcription factors (e.g. AP-1, NF kappa B). This takes place at the promotor responsive elements of these factors, but has also been reported without the presence of DNA; (ii) via glucocorticoid responsive elements (GRE), upregulate the expression of cytokine inhibitory proteins, e.g. I kappa B, which inactivates the transcription factor NF kappa B and thereby the secondary expression of a series of cytokines; (iii) reduce the half-life time and utility of cytokine mRNAs. In studies with triggered human blood mononuclear cells in culture, glucocorticoids strongly diminish the production of the 'initial phase' cytokines IL-1 beta and TNF-alpha and the 'immunomodulatory' cytokines IL-2, IL-3, IL-4, IL-5, IL-10, IL-12 and IFN-gamma, as well as of IL-6, IL-8 and the growth factor GM-CSF. While steroid treatment broadly attenuates cytokine production, it cannot modulate it selectively, e.g. just the TH0, the TH1 or the TH2 pathways. The production of the 'anti-inflammatory' IL-10 is also inhibited. The exceptions of steroid down-regulatory activity on cytokine expression seem to affect 'repair phase' cytokines like TGF-beta and PDGF. These are even reported to be upregulated, which may explain the rather weak steroid dampening action on healing and fibrotic processes. Some growth factors, e.g. G-CSF and M-CSF, are only weakly affected. In addition to diminishing the production of a cytokine, steroids can also often inhibit its subsequent actions. Because cytokines work in cascades, this means that steroid treatment can block expression of the subsequent cytokines. The blocked cytokine activity does not depend on a reduced cytokine receptor expression; in fact available in vitro investigations show that while the cytokine expression is blunted, its receptor is upregulated. The cellular studies presented here may represent the maximum potential of steroids to modulate cytokine expression in human mononuclear cells. It remains to be determined by clinical-experimental studies how effective cytokine modulation can be achieved in situ in inflamed bowel by systemic or by topical steroid therapy. Such studies may also answer whether a blocked cytokine production/action is the key or just a secondary mechanism behind the unique efficacy of steroids in active inflammatory bowel disease.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cytokines / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Cytokines / physiology*
  • Glucocorticoids / pharmacology*
  • Humans
  • Leukocytes, Mononuclear / drug effects*
  • Leukocytes, Mononuclear / physiology*


  • Cytokines
  • Glucocorticoids