Tumor necrosis factor (TNF) could possibly be instrumental in mediating injury to the CNS during bacterial meningitis. In CSF of rabbits with meningitis induced with Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) lipooligosaccharide (LOS), TNF activity was first detected 45 min after intracisternal (IC) injection of 20 ng Hib LOS and white blood cells (WBC) first appeared 75 min later. The peak TNF activity (45 ng/ml) was observed at 120 min after IC and persisted for 5 h. When 1-2 X 10(7) CFU of Hib was used to induce meningitis, peak CSF TNF activity was comparable with that after 20 ng Hib LOS, but the activity persisted for 14 h. Dexamethasone (DXM) (1 mg/kg per i.v.) given 1 h before or simultaneously with IC Hib LOS reduced significantly TNF activity and meningeal inflammation. Goat anti-human TNF alpha antibodies given IC with 20 ng Hib LOS or 2 X 10(6) CFU of Hib resulted in a significant reduction in CSF TNF concentrations, which was also associated with reduced meningeal inflammation in Hib LOS-inoculated animals. We conclude that TNF participates in mediating meningeal inflammation associated with Hib experimental meningitis, and that DXM, when given before or with Hib LOS, inhibits CSF TNF production and modulates the meningeal inflammatory response.