C5a receptor (C5aR, CD88) is a receptor originally described on neutrophils and monocyte-macrophages but recently found on hepatocytes, epithelial cells, endothelial cells, and tissue mast cells. We recently reported that human fetal astrocytes expressed a functional C5aR in vitro. Here we examine C5aR expression in adult brain cultures by immunostaining with six different anti-C5aRs and show that C5aR is expressed constitutively by astrocytes, microglia, and fibroblast-like cells but not by oligodendrocytes. In fetal brain cultures we confirmed that astrocytes constitutively expressed C5aR and demonstrated that fetal microglia and fibroblast-like cells but not oligodendrocytes and neurones expressed C5aR. Incubation with inflammatory cytokines (interferon gamma, interleukin-1, and tumor necrosis factor alpha) or phorbol ester failed to induce or up-regulate C5aR expression on fetal or adult brain cells. Immunohistochemistry was performed to determine the expression and distribution of C5aR in the normal and inflamed brain. In the normal brain C5aR was minimally expressed, whereas in inflamed brains from a variety of pathologies, C5aR expression was greatly up-regulated on reactive astrocytes and microglia and to a lesser extent on endothelial cells. We propose that expression of C5aR is a marker of central nervous system inflammation, and that C5aR expression on brain cells in inflammation plays an important role in cell activation and recruitment (gliosis).