The present study underlines the importance of reactive oxygen species in cytokine-mediated degradation of sphingomyelin (SM) to ceramide. Treatment of rat primary astrocytes with tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha) or interleukin-1beta led to marked alteration in cellular redox (decrease in intracellular GSH) and rapid degradation of SM to ceramide. Interestingly, pretreatment of astrocytes with N-acetylcysteine (NAC), an antioxidant and efficient thiol source for glutathione, prevented cytokine-induced decrease in GSH and degradation of sphingomyelin to ceramide, whereas treatment of astrocytes with diamide, a thiol-depleting agent, alone caused degradation of SM to ceramide. Moreover, potent activation of SM hydrolysis and ceramide generation were observed by direct addition of an oxidant like hydrogen peroxide or a prooxidant like aminotriazole. Similar to NAC, pyrrolidinedithiocarbamate, another antioxidant, was also found to be a potent inhibitor of cytokine-induced degradation of SM to ceramide indicating that cytokine-induced hydrolysis of sphingomyelin is redox-sensitive. Besides astrocytes, NAC also blocked cytokine-mediated ceramide production in rat primary oligodendrocytes, microglia, and C6 glial cells. Inhibition of TNF-alpha- and diamide-mediated depletion of GSH, elevation of ceramide level, and DNA fragmentation (apoptosis) in primary oligodendrocytes by NAC, and observed depletion of GSH, elevation of ceramide level, and apoptosis in banked human brains from patients with neuroinflammatory diseases (e.g. X-adrenoleukodystrophy and multiple sclerosis) suggest that the intracellular level of GSH may play a critical role in the regulation of cytokine-induced generation of ceramide leading to apoptosis of brain cells in these diseases.