Previous studies in the laboratory have shown that the pro-inflammatory cytokine tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-alpha plays a pivotal role in the pathogenesis of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). The mechanisms involved in regulating monocyte/macrophage cytokine production are not yet fully understood, but are thought to involve both soluble factors and cell/cell contact with other cell types. We and others have previously demonstrated that T cells activated through the T cell receptor/CD3 complex induce monocyte TNF-alpha production by contact-mediated signals. In this report, we investigated further whether T cells activated by cytokines in the absence of T cell receptor stimulation also regulate monocyte cytokine production. T cells were activated in an antigen-independent manner using the cytokines interleukin (IL)-15 or IL-2 alone, or in combination with IL-6 and TNF-alpha. Subsequently, T cells were fixed and incubated with monocytes. Fixed, cytokine-stimulated T cells induced monocytes to secrete TNF-alpha in a dose-dependent manner, but did not induce secretion of IL-10, a potent endogenous down-regulator of TNF-alpha and other pro-inflammatory cytokines. Stimulation of monocyte TNF-alpha was markedly inhibited when T cells were physically separated from monocytes within the tissue culture well, confirming that T cell contact is necessary. T cell acquisition of monocyte-activating capacity was shown to be dependent on the period of cytokine stimulation, with T cells activated for 8 days more effective than T cells activated for shorter periods. Addition of interferon-gamma or granulocyte/macrophage colony-stimulating factor to the T cell/monocyte cultures enhanced T cell induction of monocyte TNF-alpha by threefold and ninefold, respectively. The results from this model of cognate interaction suggest that cytokine-stimulated T cells, interacting with macrophages in the rheumatoid synovial membrane, may contribute to the continuous excessive production of TNF-alpha observed in the RA joint, and to the imbalance of pro-inflammatory cytokines over anti-inflammatory cytokines.