The receptor activator of NF-κB ligand (RANKL), a member of the TNF ligand superfamily, is known to regulate bone metabolism. The expression of each component of the RANK/RANKL/osteoprotegerin (OPG) system in the intervertebral disc (IVD) has not been examined in detail. The purposes of this study were to examine the expression of the RANK/RANKL/OPG system and to evaluate the function of RANKL in the matrix metabolism of the rat IVD.Sprague-Dawley, 12-week-old, male rats were used in this study. Anulus fibrosus (AF), nucleus pulposus (NP) and cartilaginous endplate (CEP) cells isolated from dissected thoracolumbar discs were monolayer-cultured. RANK/RANKL/OPG expression in rat IVDs was examined using real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and immunohistochemical analysis (cultured cells and IVD tissues). To examine the effect of interleukin-1β (IL-1β) stimulation on the mRNA levels of RANK, RANKL and OPG, the cells were cultured with or without recombinant human IL-1β (rhIL-1β). To evaluate the effect of RANKL on the mRNA expression of catabolic factors (IL-1β, matrix metalloproteinase-3 (MMP-3) and MMP-13), the cells were cultured with RANKL in the presence or absence of rhIL-1β. The immunohistochemical expression of this system was also evaluated using human IVD tissues with different grades of degeneration.mRNA expression levels of RANK, RANKL, and OPG were clearly identified in AF, NP and CEP cells. Immunoreactivity to RANK, RANKL and OPG was distributed in the cell membranes and/or cytoplasm of the three types of cells. The mRNA level of RANKL was significantly upregulated by treatment with rhIL-1β of the three types of cells. Treatment with RANKL without rhIL-1β did not induce significant effects on the mRNA expression of catabolic factors by AF, NP and CEP cells. However, the expression was significantly upregulated by stimulation with RANKL in the presence of rhIL-1β. There was a general trend for more RANK/RANKL/OPG-positive cells in human IVD tissues in an advanced stage of degeneration compared to an early stage.Our study showed the possibility that the RANK/RANKL/OPG system may play a part in the process of intervertebral disc degeneration.