Interleukin-1 beta depresses the voltage-gated Ca2+ channel currents in acutely dissociated guinea-pig hippocampal CA1 neurons. This depression is observed with pathophysiological concentrations found in the cerebrospinal fluid (> or = 1.0 pg interluekin-1 beta/10 microliters). Interleukin-1 receptor antagonist (in concentrations 25-fold higher than interleukin-1 beta) completely blocked the interleukin-1 beta-induced depression of the Ca2+ channel current. This suggests that interleukin-1 beta action is through a specific interaction with an interleukin-1 membrane receptor site. The application of other cytokines and growth factors (interleukin-6, epidermal growth factor, and basic fibroblast growth factor), or bacterial lipopolysaccharide (endotoxin) had no effect, indicating specificity of action of interleukin-1 beta. The depression of the Ca2+ channel current by interleukin-1 beta was prevented by the extracellular application of pertussis toxin, and by the intracellular application of GDP[beta S], H-7, staurosporine or bisindolylmaleimide. Application of phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate also depressed the Ca2+ channel current, but this phorbol ester-induced depression was not additive to that induced by interleukin-1 beta. These results suggest mediation of interleukin-1 beta action through a pertussis toxin-sensitive G-protein coupled interleukin-1 receptor associated with the activation of protein kinase C. The depression of the Ca2+ channel current by interleukin-1 beta may be involved in the regulation of neuronal excitability during pathological conditions and in the induction and/or progression of neurodegenerative processes.