Serum tumor necrosis factor (TNF) functions as a mediator of the immune-to-brain axis. Numerous TNF receptor-mediated effects on the nervous system are described but the knowledge about the regional and cellular expression of TNF receptor p55TNFR and p75TNFR in vivo is far from being complete. It is unclear whether TNF mediates its neuroimmune effects alone or in combination with other factors, e.g., bacterial mitogens. Here, we investigated the distribution of TNFα, p55TNFR, and p75TNFR in normal mouse brain and examined the stimulus-specific effects of lipopolysaccharide (LPS) and staphylococcal enterotoxin B (SEB) on the expression of the cerebral TNF system. Both mitogens caused enhanced TNFα serum levels and induced c-fos mRNA in the paraventricular nucleus but exhibited different effects on the cerebral gene expression of the TNF system. LPS but not SEB rapidly induced TNFα mRNA in circumventricular organs (CVOs) followed by spreading of TNFα mRNA into brain parenchyma close to the CVOs. The p55TNFR gene was constitutively expressed in many neurons with high levels in brainstem motor nuclei and in neurons of the sensory mesencephalic trigeminal nucleus. Moderate levels of p75TNFR mRNA were seen in single cells scattered throughout the brain in a pattern resembling microglia. Neither LPS nor SEB modulated the p55TNFR gene expression in any region or cell type of the brain, and LPS but not SEB induced p75TNFR mRNA in the CVOs. Thus, enhanced TNF serum levels able to stimulate c-fos mRNA expression in the paraventricular nucleus did not necessarily result in a modulation of the cerebral TNF system. J. Comp. Neurol. 465:417–430, 2003. © 2003 Wiley-Liss, Inc.