Neuron expression of the cytokine tumor necrosis factor-α (TNF), and the regulation of the levels of TNF by alpha2-adrenergic receptor activation were investigated. Adult rat hippocampal neurons and phorbol ester (PMA)-differentiated SH-SY5Y cells were examined. Intracellular levels of TNF mRNA accumulation, as well as TNF protein and that released into the supernatant were quantified by in situ hybridization, immunocytochemistry and bioanalysis, respectively. Both neuron cultures demonstrated constitutive production of TNF. Activation of the alpha2-adrenergic receptor increased intracellular levels of TNF mRNA and protein in SH-SY5Y cells after addition of graded concentrations of the selective agonist, Brimonidine (UK-14304) to parallel cultures. Intracellular levels of mRNA were increased in a concentration-dependent fashion within 15 min of UK-14304 addition and were sustained during 24 hr of receptor activation. In addition, the levels of TNF in the supernatant were increased in both types of neuron cultures within 15 min of alpha2-adrenergic receptor activation. Furthermore, levels of TNF significantly increased in the supernatants of both neuron cultures after potassium-induced depolarization. A reduction in this depolarization-induced release occurred in hippocampal neuron cultures after exposure to the sympathomimetic tyramine with media replacement to deplete endogenous catecholamines. This finding reveals a role for endogenous catecholamines in the regulation of TNF production. Potassium-induced depolarization resulted in the release of TNF in hippocampal neuron cultures within 15 min but not until 24 hr in SH-SY5Y cultures demonstrating a temporally mediated event dependent upon cell type. Neuron expression of TNF, regulated by alpha2-adrenergic receptor activation demonstrates not only how a neuron controls its own production of this pleiotropic cytokine, but also displays a normal role for neurons in directing the many functions of TNF. © 2002 Wiley-Liss, Inc.