Immunosuppressive therapy with methotrexate (MTX) has been established as effective treatment for patients with rheumatoid arthritis. To analyse the therapeutic potential and mechanisms of action of MTX, we determined serum cytokine levels and cytokine production by splenic T cells and macrophages in untreated and MTX-treated mice. Furthermore, we assessed the role of MTX in a murine model of experimental arthritis induced by collagen type II (CIA). MTX reduced spontaneous and IL-15-induced tumour necrosis factor (TNF) production by splenic T cells but not by macrophages from healthy mice in vitro in a dose-dependent manner. In contrast, interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma) production was less strikingly reduced and IL-4 production was virtually unaffected. In addition, treatment of healthy mice with MTX in vivo led to reduced TNF serum levels and diminished TNF production by splenic T cells and macrophages. Intraperitoneal administration of MTX prior to the onset of arthritis completely prevented clinical and pathological signs of CIA. This was associated with a striking reduction of TNF production by spleen cells from MTX-treated mice. The role of TNF in MTX-mediated effects on cytokine production was further underlined by the finding that MTX effects on IFN-gamma production were augmented in TNF-transgenic mice but abrogated in mice in which the TNF-alpha gene had been inactivated by homologous recombination. Thus, MTX specifically modulates spontaneous and IL-15-induced TNF-alpha production in mice and prevents experimental murine CIA. These data suggest that TNF production by T cells is an important target of MTX and may serve as a basis to understand and further analyse MTX-mediated mechanisms of immunosuppression in patients with RA.