We have used fas-defective MRL-lpr/lpr mice to study the effects of the staphylococcal enterotoxin superantigens on the development of autoimmune, inflammatory joint disease in animals that are susceptible to the development of rheumatoid arthritis-like disease. We show that systematic administration by a single i.p. injection of staphylococcal enterotoxin B (SEB; 10 μg/mouse) caused a mild, inflammatory arthritis +30 days postchallenge in the knee joints of young (<2-mo-old) MRL-lpr/lpr mice, but not aged-matched MRL +/+ mice. In aged (>8-mo-old) MRL-lpr/lpr mice, but not in aged MRL +/+ mice, SEB caused a severe, inflammatory arthritis, as assessed histologically, and systemic autoimmune disease, including glomerulonephritis and autoantibody production. Furthermore, in aged MRL-lpr/lpr mice, SEB but not heat-denatured SEB caused acute weight loss and elevated levels of serum proinflammatory cytokines. Compared with highly purified peritoneal macrophages obtained from either aged MRL +/+, young MRL-lpr/lpr, or young MRL +/+, peritoneal macrophages obtained from aged MRL-lpr/lpr mice constitutively expressed 2- to 10-fold greater levels of TNF-α, IL-1β, IL-6, and IL-10, and produced elevated amounts of these cytokines when treated in vitro with SEB. SEB-challenged aged MRL-lpr/lpr mice treated with anti-TNF mAb (100 μg/mouse; every other day), anti-Vβ8 TCR mAb (250 μg/mouse; every other day), or orally with the novel TNF-α inhibitor MDL 201,449A (9-[(1R, 3R)-trans-cyclopentan-3-ol] adenine; 25 mg/kg/day) exhibited reduced inflammatory arthritis, autoantibody formation, and serum TNF-α levels, but not IL-10 levels, after +30 days of treatment. These data suggest that SEB is an extremely potent macrophage-activating factor in vitro and in vivo, enhancing several aspects of autoimmune disease in MRL-lpr/lpr mice, and that anti-TNF therapies may have potential use in inflammatory arthritis.