Interleukin-1alpha (IL-1alpha) and tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha) markedly stimulate glucose utilization in primary cultures of mouse cortical astrocytes. The mechanism that gives rise to this effect, which takes place several hours after application of cytokine, has remained unclear. Experiments were conducted to identify the major signaling cascades involved in the metabolic action of cytokine. First, the selective IL-1 receptor antagonist (IL-1ra) prevents the effect of IL-1alpha on glucose utilization in a concentration-dependent manner, whereas it has no effect on the action of TNF-alpha. Then, using inhibitors of three classical signaling cascades known to be activated by cytokines, it appears that the PI3 kinase is essential for the effect of both IL-1alpha and TNF-alpha, whereas the action of IL-1alpha also requires activation of the MAP kinase pathway. Participation of a phospholipase C-dependent pathway does not appear critical for both IL-1alpha and TNF-alpha. Inhibition of NO synthase by L-NAME did not prevent the metabolic response to both IL-1alpha and TNF-alpha, indicating that nitric oxide is probably not involved. In contrast, the Na(+)/K(+) ATPase inhibitor ouabain prevents the IL-1alpha- and TNF-alpha-stimulated 2-deoxyglucose (2DG) uptake. When treatment of astrocytes with a cytokine was followed 24 h later by an acute application of glutamate, a synergistic enhancement in glucose utilization was observed. This effect was greatly reduced by ouabain. These data suggest that Na(+) pump activity is a common target for both the long-term metabolic action of cytokines promoted by the activation of distinct signaling pathways and the enhanced metabolic response to glutamate.