Conflicting reports exist regarding the effects of interleukin-10 (IL-10) on mesangial cells. There have been reports of both proliferative and antiproliferative effects, and both proinflammatory and anti-inflammatory effects of IL-10 on mesangial cells. However, the potential for IL-10 to affect glomerulonephritis characterized by mesangial proliferation is not known. To test the hypothesis that IL-10 would limit experimental mesangial proliferative glomerulonephritis, IL-10 was administered to rats in which mesangial proliferative glomerulonephritis was induced by administration of anti-Thy 1 antibody. Compared to control treated rats, IL-10 treated rats showed less proliferation, with fewer cells in glomeruli. Glomerular cellular proliferation was reduced, assessed by the numbers of cells within glomeruli expressing either proliferating cell nuclear antigen (PCNA) or bromodeoxyuridine. Glomerular macrophage influx (but not the proportion of glomerular macrophages that were PCNA positive) was reduced by IL-10 administration. There was no significant reduction in glomerular alpha-smooth muscle actin staining. IL-10 treatment resulted in reduced renal IL-1beta mRNA expression and reduced glomerular ICAM-1 expression, but renal expression of MCP-1 and osteopontin mRNA was unaltered. This study demonstrates that in experimental mesangial proliferative glomerulonephritis IL-10 diminishes inflammatory cell recruitment and mesangial cell proliferation. The effects of IL-10 in inhibiting mesangial cell proliferation are likely to be due to a combination of direct effects of IL-10 on mesangial cells and effects mediated by macrophages.