Cytokine expression was assessed during antigen-induced arthritis (AIA) in synovial membrane (SM), inguinal lymph node (LN), and spleen using competitive RT-PCR and sandwich ELISA. In the SM, early elevations of IL-1β and IL-6 mRNA (by 6 hours; 450- and 200-fold, respectively) correlated with the joint swelling; a 6-fold increase in tumor necrosis factor α (TNFα) was not significant. Not only IL-2 and IFN-γ (which increased 10,000-fold and 200-fold, respectively), but also IL-5 and IL-10, increased acutely (6 hours – day 1; 3-fold and 35-fold, respectively) in the SM. In general, the protein levels in the SM for IL-1β, IL-6, TNFα, IFN-γ, IL-4, and IL-10 (increase from 4-fold to 15-fold) matched the course of mRNA expression. In the inguinal LN, there were early mRNA elevations of IL-6 (a 2.5-fold increase by 6 hours, which correlated positively with the joint swelling) and IL-2 (4-fold by 6 hours), as well as later rises of IL-4 and IL-5 (2.5- and 4-fold, respectively, by day 3). No significant elevations of the corresponding proteins in this tissue were observed, except for IL-1β (by day 6) and IL-10 (by day 1). In the spleen, there were significant mRNA elevations at 6 hours of IL-1β (1.5-fold), IL-6 (4-fold; positively correlated with the joint swelling), IFN-γ (3-fold), and IL-2 (7- to 10-fold). IL-5 and IL-10 (2- and 3-fold, respectively) peaked from 6 hours to day 3 in the spleen. Increases of the corresponding proteins were significant in comparison with day 0 only in the case of IL-2 (day 6). By day 6 (transition to the chronic phase), the mRNA for cytokines declined to or below prearthritis levels in all the tissues studied except for IL-1β in the SM and IL-6 in the spleen. AIA is thus characterized by four phenomena: early synovial activation of macrophages, T helper (Th)1-like, and Th2-like cells; late, well-segregated Th2-like responses in the inguinal LN; late, overlapping Th1-like/Th2-like peaks in the spleen; and chronic elevation of synovial IL-1β mRNA and spleen IL-6 mRNA.