To evaluate the potential role of cachectin/TNF-alpha in the pathogenesis of bacterial and viral meningitis, concentrations and kinetics of TNF-alpha were determined in cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). After intracerebral, but not systemic, infection with Listeria monocytogenes in mice, TNF-alpha was detected as early as 3 h after infection reaching maximum titers after 24 h. However, TNF-alpha was not found in serum during the course of Listeria infection. In contrast to bacterial meningitis, no TNF-alpha was detected at any time in CSF of mice suffering from severe lymphocytic choriomeningitis induced by intracerebral infection with lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus. This difference is striking since both model infections led to a massive infiltration of polymorphonuclear and mononuclear leukocytes into the meninges and CSF. The results found for the two model infections were paralleled by findings in humans; CSF from three out of three patients with bacterial meningitis examined during the first day of hospitalization showed significant levels of TNF-alpha; none of the CSF obtained later than 3 d after hospitalization was positive. In addition, similarly to what was found in mice with viral meningitis, zero out of seven patients with viral meningitis had detectable TNF-alpha in CSF.