The ubiquitous transcription factor nuclear factor (NF)-kappaB plays a prominent role in regulation of inflammatory immune responses and in cell survival. Recently, it has been found to be active in neurons, and mice lacking NF-kappaB subunits p50 or p65 show deficits in specific cognitive tasks. Here we demonstrate a strikingly low level of anxiety-like behavior in the p50(-/-) mouse. In an open field, the mutant mice showed significantly less defecation, more rearing, and more time spent in the center compartment relative to wild type control mice. The p50(-/-) mice also spent more time investigating a novel object placed in the open field. On the elevated plus maze, p50(-/-) mice spent more time on the open arms and had increased numbers of open arm entries relative to wild type. In group housing conditions, they did not establish dominant-subordinate hierarchies, whereas wild type control animals did so, in part, by whisker barbering and conspecific allogrooming. In tests of general health, sensorimotor function, and daily activity on a circadian rhythm, p50(-/-) mice were normal. Thus, absence of the p50 subunit of the NF-kappaB transcription factor, which results in altered NF-kappaB transcriptional activity in cells throughout the body and brain, alters neuronal circuitry underlying manifestation of emotional behavior. The p50 subunit appears to play a role in normal expression of certain forms of anxiety.