Cytokines may play an important role in the pathophysiology of traumatic brain injury (TBI) in children. Interleukin-6 (IL-6) is a proinflammatory cyotkine that plays a role in regenerative processes within the central nervous system (CNS), whereas interleukin-10 (IL-10) is an antiinflammatory cytokine. Both have been measured in serum and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) as an index of the degree of inflammation in diseases, including sepsis and meningitis. We hypothesized that both IL-6 and IL-10 would be increased in the CSF of children after severe TBI. Fifteen children who sustained severe TBI (Glascow Coma Score [GCS] < or = 7) were studied. Standard neurointensive care was provided. Ventricular CSF collected the first 3 days after TBI was analyzed for IL-6 and IL-10 concentrations by ELISA. Controls were 20 children who were evaluated for meningitis with diagnostic lumbar puncture subsequently found to have no CSF pleocytosis and negative cultures. IL-6 was increased in children after TBI versus controls on all days studied (day 1, 3158.2 +/- 621.8 pg/ml; day 2, 1111.6 +/- 337.0 pg/ml; day 3, 826.7 +/- 193.5 pg/ml vs. 20.6 +/- 5.8 pg/ml, p < 0.0001, Mann-Whitney Rank Sum). IL-10 was increased in children after TBI vs controls on all days studied (day 1, 47.2 +/- 12.9 pg/ml; day 2, 21.0 +/- 6.7 pg/ml; day 3, 15.5 +/- 5.9 pg/ml vs. 8.9 +/- 7.5 pg/ml, p < 0.01). Increased IL-10 concentrations were independently associated with age < 4 years and mortality (p = 0.004 and 0.04, respectively, multivariate linear model). This study demonstrates that IL-6 is increased after TBI in children to levels similar to those reported in adults and is the first to show that IL-10 is increased in CSF of humans after TBI. These data suggest that there may be an age-dependent production of IL-10 after TBI in children.