Peripheral macrophages infiltrating the central nervous system and resident microglia phagocytize myelin in cell-mediated demyelinating diseases, including experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis and multiple sclerosis. A cascade of cytokines is believed to modulate the immunological sequence of events occurring in these conditions, and several of these mediate their effects through the protein kinase C pathway. Therefore, we compared the effects of phorbol myristate acetate (PMA), an activator of protein kinase C, on various functions of cultured macrophages and microglia. PMA at moderate concentrations induced apoptosis in macrophages, and this process appeared to be increased in the presence of myelin. In contrast, microglia were activated by PMA, and greatly increased their phagocytosis of myelin. Control macrophages released a considerable amount of proteolytic activity into the medium, as measured by the breakdown of myelin basic protein, and in the process of undergoing apoptosis from PMA-treatment, even higher amounts were released. The enzyme activity in control macrophage medium was inhibited mainly by PMSF and calpain inhibitors, while that from PMA-treated macrophages was inhibited by calpain inhibitors only. An ICE inhibitor was ineffective in inhibiting activity in medium from PMA-treated cells undergoing apoptosis. Medium from microglia contained very little proteolytic activity, and this was not increased by PMA. Cultured macrophages showed little evidence of oxygen free radical release as measured by the TBARS procedure, and PMA had no effect. Microglia, on the other hand, produced higher levels of reactive oxygen species, with a further increase of 18% by PMA. Thus major functions of these phagocytic cells appear to be modulated by the protein kinase C pathway, although the two cell types show very different responses to an activator of this signal.