Interleukin-6 (IL-6), a member of the neuropoietic cytokine family, initially was described in terms of its activities in the immune system and during inflammation. Accumulating evidence supports an essential role of IL-6 in the development, differentiation, regeneration and degeneration of neurons in the peripheral and central nervous system. Major sites of IL-6 synthesis are neurons and glial cells. Interleukin-6 functions are mediated by a specific receptor system composed of a binding site and a signal transducer. This receptor system can be modulated by a complex of IL-6 and soluble IL-6 receptor acting as agonist. The IL-6 can exert completely opposite actions on neurons, triggering either neuronal survival after injury or causing neuronal degeneration and cell death in disorders such as Alzheimer's disease. Development of selective IL-6 agonists and antagonists, as well as the usage of soluble IL-6 receptors, offers new possibilities for the treatment of neurodegenerative disorders. Furthermore, optimized genetic mouse models, including transgenic and knockout animals, should help to define the physiological and pathophysiological role of IL-6 in the nervous system.