The inhibitors of DNA binding (Id) gene family is highly expressed during embryogenesis and throughout adulthood in the rat central nervous system (CNS). In vitro studies suggest that the Id gene family is involved in the regulation of cell proliferation and differentiation. Recently, Id gene expression was shown to be expressed in immature and mature astrocytes during development and upregulated in reactive astrocytes after spinal cord injury. These results suggest that the Id gene family may play an important role in regulating astrocyte development and reactivity; however, the factors regulating Id expression in astrocytes remain undefined. Tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF alpha), a proinflammatory cytokine, is thought to play a crucial role in astrocyte/microglia activation after injury to the CNS. To determine if TNF alpha plays a role in Id gene expression, we exogenously administered TNF alpha into developing postnatal rats. We report that TNF alpha injections resulted in a rapid and transient increase in both cell number and mRNA expression for Id2 and Id3 when compared to levels observed in noninjected or control-injected animals. Id1 mRNA levels were also upregulated after TNF alpha treatment, but to a lesser degree. Significant increases in TNF alpha-induced Id2 and Id3 mRNA were observed in the ventricular/subventricular zone, cingulum and corpus callosum. TNF alpha also increased Id2 mRNA expression in the caudate putamen and hippocampus at the injection site. Id2 and Id3 mRNA+ cells were identified as GFAP+ and S100 alpha + astrocytes as well as ED1+ microglia. This is the first report to show TNF-alpha-induced modulation of the Id gene family and suggests that Id may be involved in the formation of reactive astrocytes and activated microglia in the rodent brain. These results suggest a putative role for the Id family in the molecular mechanisms regulating cellular responsiveness to TNF alpha and CNS inflammation.