OBJECTIVES To investigate the role of T helper-1 cell (Th1) activation in the induction of proinflammatory cytokine production and cartilage damage by rheumatoid arthritis (RA) synovial fluid mononuclear cells (SFMNC) and the subsequent possible beneficial role of the T helper-2 cell (Th2) cytokine interleukin-4 (IL-4) in the inhibition of this process. METHODS SFMNC were stimulated with bacterial antigen (hsp60) to activate Th1 cells. Th1 and Th2 specific cytokine profiles (interferon gamma (IFN gamma) and IL-4) and proinflammatory cytokines interleukin-1 (IL-1) and tumour necrosis factor alpha (TNF alpha) in the conditioned media were analysed. In addition, the conditioned media were tested for their ability to induce cartilage damage. The same parameters were measured in the presence of IL-4. RESULTS Stimulation of SFMNC with bacterial antigen resulted in an increase in IFN gamma, IL-1, and TNF alpha production which was accompanied by the induction of cartilage damage. Th1 activation could be inhibited by IL-4 as shown by a reduction of IFN gamma. This was accompanied by a decrease in IL-1 and TNF alpha production and inhibition of cartilage damage. CONCLUSIONS Th1 activation is a possible mechanism by which inflammation in RA joints is enhanced. The Th2 cytokine IL-4 inhibits this Th1 activity and may diminish inflammation and induction of cartilage damage in RA joints.