Theiler's murine encephalomyelitis virus (TMEV) infection of a susceptible strain of mice results in virus persistence in the brain and chronic primary immune-mediated demyelination, which resembles multiple sclerosis. Recent attention has focused on the anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive properties of interleukin-6, a pleiotropic cytokine involved in the regulation of immunological responses, acute phase protein production and hematopoiesis. Anandamide (arachidonoyl ethanolamine) is a natural brain constituent that binds a specific brain cannabinoid receptor. In this study we investigated whether anandamide can modify interleukin-6 production by primary cultures of murine brain cortical astrocytes infected with TMEV. Astrocytes from susceptible (SJL/J) and resistant (BALB/c) strains of mice infected with TMEV (10(5)PFU/well) increased IL-6 release over a period of 24 h. Anandamide caused an enhancement of the release of IL-6 by TMEV-infected astrocytes in a concentration-dependent manner (1-25 microM). Treatment of TMEV-infected astrocytes with 10 microM arachidonyl trifluoromethyl ketone, a potent inhibitor of the amidase that degrades anandamide, was found to potentiate the effects of anandamide on IL-6 release. A novel and selective cannabinoid receptor antagonist, SR 141617A, blocked the enhancing effects of anandamide on IL-6 release by TMEV-infected astrocytes, suggesting a cannabinoid receptor-mediated pathway. The physiological implications of these results are unknown, but may be related to the hypothesis of the protective effects of cannabinoids on neurological disorders like multiple sclerosis.