Protein catabolic states (i.e., sepsis and trauma) are thought to be associated with accelerated oxidation of branched-chain amino acids (BCAA). Branched-chain alpha-keto acid dehydrogenase (BCKAD), the rate-limiting enzyme for BCAA oxidation by muscle, is regulated by phosphorylation/dephosphorylation. Skeletal muscle BCKAD was only 2-4% active in control rats. Intravenous injection of Salmonella enteritidis endotoxin (0.25-10 mg/kg) did not change total BCKAD activity, but increased the percent active enzyme in muscle three- to four-fold in 4-6 h. Identical results were observed in adrenalectomized rats pretreated with one dose of alpha-methylprednisolone (2.5 mg/kg i.p.) 30-60 min before saline or endotoxin injection, indicating that endotoxin's effect was not mediated by hypersecretion of adrenal hormones. Cortisone pretreatment of normal rats (100 mg/kg per d) for 2 d prevented endotoxin-induced activation of muscle BCKAD, suggesting that endogenous secretion products mediated BCKAD activation by endotoxin. Human recombinant tumor necrosis factor-alpha and/or IL-1 beta or alpha (50 micrograms/kg) increased muscle BCKAD activation two- to fourfold in normal rats 4-6 h after intravenous injection. We conclude that cytokine-mediated activation of muscle BCKAD may contribute to accelerated BCAA oxidation in septicemia.