Pneumococcal cell wall induces meningeal inflammation in rabbits injected intracisternally with greater than 10(5) cell equivalents. Both of the major cell wall components, teichoic acid and peptidoglycan, contribute to this inflammatory activity although responses differ depending on the chemical nature, size, and complexity of these fractions. Challenge with teichoic acid (membrane or wall associated) results in greater inflammation at 5 hr than at 24 hr. Degraded teichoic acid is inactive. In contrast, the inflammation caused by whole cell wall or high-molecular-weight peptidoglycan-containing fractions increases in intensity from 5 to 24 hr. Peptidoglycan fractions lose activity at 24 hr when hydrolyzed to disaccharide-stem peptide moieties. Generation of free cell wall components in cerebrospinal fluid as, for example, during treatment with antibiotics that are bacteriolytic as well as bactericidal, could contribute to increased inflammation in the subarachnoid space.