Interleukin (IL)-1 expression is induced rapidly in response to diverse CNS insults and is a key mediator of experimentally induced neuronal injury. However, the mechanisms of IL-1-induced neurotoxicity are unknown. The aim of the present study was to examine the toxic effects of IL-1 on rat cortical cell cultures. Treatment with IL-1β did not affect the viability of pure cortical neurones. However, IL-1 treatment of cocultures of neurones with glia or purified astrocytes induced caspase activation resulting in neuronal death. Neuronal cell death induced by IL-1 was prevented by pre-treatment with the IL-1 receptor antagonist, the broad spectrum caspase inhibitor Boc-Asp-(OMe)-CH2F or the antioxidant α-tocopherol. The NMDA receptor antagonist dizolcipine (MK-801) attenuated cell death induced by low doses of IL-1β but the α-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methylisoxazole-4-propionic acid receptor antagonist 2,3-dihydroxy-6-nitro-7-sulfamoyl-benzo(F)quinoxaline (NBQX) had no effect. Inhibition of inducible nitric oxide synthase with N(ω)-nitro-l-arginine methyl ester had no effect on neuronal cell death induced by IL-1β. Thus, IL-1 activates the IL-1 type 1 receptor in astrocytes to induce caspase-dependent neuronal death, which is dependent on the release of free radicals and may contribute to neuronal cell death in CNS diseases.