The influence of granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF) and IFN-gamma on the restoration of impaired TNF-alpha release in LPS-desensitized mice or their refractory macrophages was investigated. Mice pretreated with GM-CSF or IFN-gamma (50 microg/kg i.v.) and injected with 3 mg/kg LPS i.p. displayed increased plasma TNF-alpha levels compared with LPS controls. IL-10 was marginally up-regulated by GM-CSF but abrogated by IFN-gamma pretreatment. LPS-tolerant mice (30 microg/kg LPS i.p., -24 h) showed an attenuated plasma TNF-alpha and IL-10 response to LPS and survived LPS shock. Pretreatment of such mice with GM-CSF or IFN-gamma restored the previously impaired TNF-alpha response. In cultures of murine monocyte/macrophage-containing cell populations, i.e., alveolar, peritoneal, spleen, bone marrow cells, or blood, the presence of GM-CSF or IFN-gamma (10 ng/ml) resulted in an enhanced release of TNF-alpha initiated by 1 microg/ml LPS. Cells from LPS-tolerant mice showed a diminished responsiveness to LPS. However, when exposed to GM-CSF or IFN-gamma ex vivo, their TNF-alpha response to LPS was partially restored. These findings characterize GM-CSF and IFN-gamma as potent enhancers of LPS-induced TNF-alpha production in normal as well as in experimentally immunocompromised mice and provide the rationale for further experiments to explore the pharmacologic use of these cytokines for restoration of immunocompetence in sepsis-associated immunosuppression.