Tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF; cachectin), a peptide secreted from stimulated macrophages, mediates some of the metabolic derangements in inflammatory and neoplastic disorders. To determine whether TNF is responsible for the changes in hypothalamic-pituitary-thyroid (HPT) function in nonthyroid illnesses, we administered synthetic human TNF to male Sprague-Dawley rats. The rats were given TNF or saline (control; both pair fed and nonpair fed) iv (six to eight per group). HPT function was tested 8 h after administration of 200 micrograms TNF/kg BW, 8 h after 5 days of 150 micrograms TNF/kg BW, and 8 h after a 3-day series of 50, 200, and 800 micrograms TNF/kg BW. The single injection of 200 micrograms TNF/kg significantly reduced (all P less than 0.05) serum TSH, T4, free T4, T3, and hypothalamic TRH compared to the corresponding hormone levels in saline-injected control rats. Serum TSH and hypothalamic TRH recovered to normal levels after 5 days of 150 micrograms/kg TNF treatment. With the increasing daily doses of TNF, serum TSH and hypothalamic TRH fell significantly. Hepatic 5'-deiodinase activity was reduced after 1 day of TNF treatment, but increased after the 3-day series of injections. TNF treatment reduced pituitary TSH beta mRNA, but did not affect alpha-subunit mRNA. TNF treatment also reduced thyroid 125I uptake and reduced thyroidal release of T4 and T3 in response to bovine TSH, but did not change the TSH response to TRH. TNF treatment reduced the binding of pituitary TSH to Concanavalin-A, indicating that it alters the glycosylation of TSH. The TSH with reduced affinity for this lectin had reduced biological activity when tested in cultured FRTL-5 rat thyroid cells. In vitro, TNF inhibited 125I uptake by cultured FRTL-5 rat thyroid cells and blocked the stimulation of [3H]thymidine uptake by these cells. The data indicate that TNF acts on the HPT axis at multiple levels and suggest that TNF is one of the mediators responsible for alterations in thyroid function tests in patients with nonthyroidal illnesses.