The role of electro-physiological events in signal transduction of interleukin-1 beta (IL-1 beta) was investigated in rabbit synovial fibroblasts using the perforated-patch method. Aggregated synovial fibroblasts using the perforated-patch method. Aggregated synovial fibroblasts occurred in two different electrophysiological states having membrane potentials (Vm) of -63 +/- 4 (n = 71) and -27 +/- 10 mV (n = 55) (high and low Vm, respectively). IL-1 beta affected the cells with high Vm; it switched the state of the cell from high to low Vm. This effect was strongly dependent on the external potential applied to the cell membrane. Low Vm (-30 mV) alone without IL-1 beta did not switch the state of the cells. Thus a synergistic effect involving the cytokine and cell Vm in switching the electrophysiological state of the cell was shown, indicating that electrophysiological changes are involved in signal transduction. Gap junctions between aggregated cells were necessary for the cells to have a high Vm and to respond to IL-1 beta. Gap junction resistance between adjacent cells was estimated as 300 +/- 100 M omega. Our findings suggest that the electrophysiological behavior of synovial fibroblasts is tightly connected to a signaling or intracellular mediator system that is triggered by IL-1 beta.