Our recent study showed that IL-12 treatment of susceptible A/J mice induces Th1-mediated, protective immunity against lethal blood-stage Plasmodium chabaudi AS infection. To further understand the mechanism of this protection, we examined NK cell cytotoxic (NKCC) and cytokine secretory functions in untreated and IL-12-treated A/J mice, along with resistant C57BL/6 (B6) mice. Normal A/J mice receiving six daily doses of 0.1 microg IL-12 exhibited significant increases in NKCC in total spleen cell populations. Defective NKCC evident in vitro in enriched NK cells from infected A/J mice was corrected by addition of 10 ng/ml IL-12 and was comparable with that seen in B6 mice. In vivo and in vitro analyses revealed that enriched NK cells from day 6 infected A/J mice were defective not only in NKCC, but also in IFN-gamma, and to a certain extent, TNF-alpha secretion, which could also be corrected by IL-12 treatment. Depletion of NK cells from resistant B6 mice resulted in a more severe course of infection, while NK cell-depleted, IL-12-treated A/J mice had significantly higher parasitemia, as well as 100% mortality, suggesting the importance of NK cells in IL-12-mediated protection. NKCC-defective bg/bg mice produced optimum IFN-gamma and TNF-alpha and recovered from infection similar to bg/+ controls; in vivo depletion of these cytokines resulted in significantly higher parasitemia early in infection. Based on these results, we conclude that IFN-gamma, and possibly TNF-alpha, secretion by NK cells during early infection plays a major role in protective immunity to blood-stage malaria.