Stroke causes neuronal necrosis and generates inflammation. Pro-inflammatory molecules intervene in this process by triggering glial cell activation and leucocyte infiltration to the injured tissue. Cytokines are major mediators of the inflammatory response. Pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokines are released in the ischaemic brain. Anti-inflammatory cytokines, such as interleukin-10, promote cell survival, whereas pro-inflammatory cytokines, such as TNFα (tumour necrosis factor α), can induce cell death. However, deleterious effects of certain cytokines can turn to beneficial actions, depending on particular features such as the concentration, time point and the very intricate network of intracellular signals that become activated and interact. A key player in the intracellular response to cytokines is the JAK (Janus kinase)/STAT (signal transducer and activator of transcription) pathway that induces alterations in the pattern of gene transcription. These changes are associated either with cell death or survival depending, among other things, on the specific proteins involved. STAT1 activation is related to cell death, whereas STAT3 activation is often associated with survival. Yet, it is clear that STAT activation must be tightly controlled, and for this reason the function of JAK/STAT modulators, such as SOCS (suppressors of cytokine signalling) and PIAS (protein inhibitor of activated STAT), and phosphatases is most relevant. Besides local effects in the ischaemic brain, cytokines are released to the circulation and affect the immune system. Unbalanced pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory plasma cytokine concentrations favouring an ‘anti-inflammatory’ state can decrease the immune response. Robust evidence now supports that stroke can induce an immunodepression syndrome, increasing the risk of infection. The contribution of individual cytokines and their intracellular signalling pathways to this response needs to be further investigated.

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