Immunosuppressive drugs are used routinely to reduce the inappropriate production of cytokines in an immune response. Recent attention has focused on drugs that selectively inhibit specific cytokines. Both thalidomide and dexamethasone have been reported to exhibit immunomodulatory effects on cytokines in vitro. We wished to examine the effects of thalidomide and dexamethasone on the production of cytokines by peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC), following mitogenic stimulation, at the level of both secreted product and mRNA production. PBMC from healthy human volunteers were stimulated optimally with phytohaemagglutinin (PHA) in the presence of varying concentrations of thalidomide and dexamethasone using dimethyl sulphoxide (DMSO) as the solvent. Analysis of supernatants by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) showed that thalidomide caused a dose-dependent inhibition of the pro-inflammatory cytokines interleukin 6 (IL-6) and tumour necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha), maximally reducing production by 20 (P < 0.05) and 30% (P < 0.01), respectively, compared with controls. However, thalidomide did not affect either proliferation or the production of interleukin 2 (IL-2), interleukin 4 (IL-4) or interleukin 10 (IL-10). A slight bell shaped inhibition of interferon gamma (IFN-gamma) was seen which was statistically significant (P < 0.05). In contrast, dexamethasone inhibited markedly the expression of all cytokines tested (IL-2, IL-4, IL-6, IL-10, IFN-gamma and TNF-alpha) in dose-dependent fashion, reducing levels to near to background. Reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) analyses showed that thalidomide inhibited selectively the expression of TNF-alpha and IL-6 mRNA, whereas dexamethasone inhibited mRNA levels of all cytokines examined. The data indicate that dexamethasone is a broad range immunosuppressant inhibiting all cytokines tested in a dose-dependent manner at the level of both secreted product and mRNA. Conversely, thalidomide selectively inhibits the production of IL-6 and TNF-alpha. Due to their markedly different effects on cytokine production, and the fact that both drugs act at the level of transcription, we believe they influence separate pathways involved in cytokine gene regulation.