Tumor necrosis factor is a potent activator of myeloid cells, which acts via two cell-surface receptors, the p55 and p75 tumor necrosis factor receptors. The present study describes the cellular distribution of both receptor messenger RNAs across the rat brain under basal conditions and in response to systemic injection with the bacterial endotoxin lipopolysaccharide and recombinant rat tumor necrosis factor-alpha. Time-related induction of the messenger RNA encoding c-fos, cyclo-oxygenase-2 enzyme and the inhibitory factor kappa B alpha was assayed as an index of activated neurons and cells of the microvasculature by intravenous tumor necrosis factor-alpha challenge. The effect of the proinflammatory cytokine on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis was determined by measuring the transcriptional activity of corticotropin-releasing factor and plasma corticosterone levels. Constitutive expression of p55 messenger RNA was detected in the circumventricular organs, choroid plexus, leptomeninges, the ependymal lining cells of the ventricular walls and along the blood vessels, whereas p75 transcript was barely detectable in the brain under basal conditions. Immunogenic insults caused up-regulation of both tumor necrosis factor receptors in barrier-associated structures, as well as over the blood vessels, an event that was associated with a robust activation of the microvasculature. Indeed, intravenous tumor necrosis factor-alpha provoked a rapid and transient transcription of inhibitory factor kappa B alpha and cyclo-oxygenase-2 within cells of the blood-brain barrier, and a dual-labeling technique provided the anatomical evidence that the endothelium of the brain capillaries expressed inhibitory factor kappa B alpha. Circulating tumor necrosis factor-alpha also rapidly stimulated c-fos expression in nuclei involved in the autonomic control, including the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis, the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus, the central nucleus of the amygdala, the nucleus of the solitary tract and the ventrolateral medulla. A delayed c-fos mRNA induction was detected in the circumventricular organs, organum vascularis of the lamina terminalis, the subfornical organ, the median eminence and the area postrema. The paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus exhibited expression of corticotropin-releasing factor primary transcript that was associated with a sharp increase in the plasma corticosterone levels 1h after intravenous tumor necrosis factor-alpha administration. Taken together, these data provide the evidence that p55 is the most abundant tumor necrosis factor receptor in the central nervous system and is expressed in barrier-associated structures. Circulating tumor necrosis factor has the ability to directly activate the endothelium of the brain's large blood vessels and small capillaries, which may produce soluble molecules (such as prostaglandins) to vehicle the signal through parenchymal elements. The pattern of c-fos-inducible nuclei suggests complex neuronal circuits solicited by the cytokine to activate neuroendocrine corticotropin-releasing factor and the corticotroph axis, a key physiological response for the appropriate control of the systemic inflammatory response.