The killing of bacteria gaining access to the central nervous system is insufficient and requires bactericidal antibiotics for treatment. The inefficient host response in cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) is thought to be due to impaired phagocytosis in CSF, and low local concentration of antibody and complement. In addition, the CSF may contain inhibitors, disabling phagocytes to eliminate bacteria. We have assessed the bactericidal activity of macrophages in the presence of CSF from mice infected intracerebrally with Listeria monocytogenes (LM). Pretreatment of J774A.1 macrophages with interferon gamma (IFN-gamma) resulted in high levels of nitric oxide-dependent intracellular killing of LM. CSF taken from mice 24 h after infection (CSF-LM 24) contained IFN-gamma and induced killing of LM by macrophages. However, pulsing J774A.1 cells with IFN-gamma in the presence of CSF obtained from mice at later time points (48 h) rendered macrophages partly permissive for intracellular Listeria growth. The inhibitor detected in CSF-LM 48 was identified as IL-10 since: (a) IL-10 dose dependently impaired the listericidal activity of IFN-gamma-activated macrophages; (b) anti-IL-10 antibodies abrogated the bacterial growth permissive effect of CSF-LM 48; and (c) IL-10 was detected in CSF-LM 48 but not in CSF-LM 24 or CSF of mock-injected animals (CSF-Co). Likewise, IL-10 was found in the CSF of 95% of patients with bacterial meningitis.