The cytokine interleukin-1 (IL-1) has been implicated in ischaemic, traumatic and excitotoxic brain damage. The results presented here reveal novel actions of IL-1 in the striatum which markedly exacerbate cortical neuronal damage elicited by local excitotoxins in the striatum or cortex. Intrastriatal infusion of IL-1 receptor antagonist, IL-1ra, markedly inhibited striatal neuronal damage caused by N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) or alpha-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionate (AMPA) receptor activation in the rat. In contrast, intracortical infusion of IL-1ra failed to inhibit NMDA or AMPA receptor-induced damage in the cortex. Intrastriatal co-infusion of IL-1 with the NMDA or AMPA receptor agonist did not affect local striatal damage induced by activation of either glutamate receptor subtype, but caused extensive cortical damage when administered into the striatum with AMPA. This secondary damage was significantly reduced by pretreatment with the NMDA receptor antagonist (MK-801), which did not affect local (striatal) damage caused by AMPA. Infusion of IL-1beta into the striatum (but not the cortex) markedly enhanced cortical damage caused by infusion of an NMDA or AMPA receptor agonist into the cortex. These data reveal selective actions of IL-1 and IL-1ra in the striatum, which influence cortical neuronal loss and suggest that IL-1 selectively enhances damage caused by AMPA receptor activation.