The cytokine tumor necrosis factor (TNF-alpha) is a pleotrophic polypeptide that plays a significant role in brain immune and inflammatory activities. TNF-alpha is produced in the brain in response to various pathological processes such as infectious agents [e.g., human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and malaria], ischemia, and trauma. TNF-alpha mRNA is rapidly produced in response to brain ischemia within 1 h, reaches a peak at 6-12 h post ischemia, and subsides 1-2 days later. TNF-alpha mRNA expression corresponds in a temporal fashion to other cytokines such as interleukin (IL)-6, cytokine-induced neutrophil chemoattractant (KC), and IL-1 and precedes the infiltration of inflammatory cells into the injured zone. TNF-alpha is present early in neuronal cells in and around the ischemic tissue (penumbra), yet at later time points, the peptide is found in macrophages in the infarcted tissue. TNF-alpha has been demonstrated to cause expression of proadhesive molecules on the endothelium, which results in leukocyte accumulation, adherence, and migration from capillaries into the brain. Furthermore, TNF-alpha activates glial cells, thereby regulating tissue remodeling, gliosis, and scar formation. Thus, evidence is emerging in support of a role for TNF-alpha in injury induced by infectious, immune, toxic, traumatic, and ischemic stimuli. TNF-alpha promotes inflammation by stimulation of capillary endothelial cell proinflammatory responses and thereby provides leukocyte adhesion and infiltration into the ischemic brain. The evidence generated so far suggests that agents that suppress TNF-alpha's production or actions will reduce leukocyte infiltration into ischemic brain regions and thereby diminish the extent of tissue loss.