This study was designed to examine the mechanisms by which systemic interleukin-1 affects neuroendocrine systems in the brain. Intraperitoneal injections of interleukin-1 beta (1.25 micrograms/rat) were administered to rats. One or three hours after injection, the expression levels of the immediate-early gene c-fos and of genes for several neuropeptides, receptors, and enzymes were examined by in situ hybridization histochemistry. In the brainstem at 1 hr, c-fos mRNA was elevated in the area postrema and nucleus of the solitary tract, but not in the locus coeruleus. At 3 hr, the c-fos mRNA levels had increased further in the nucleus of the solitary tract. Rostrally, elevations in c-fos mRNA levels were found in the hypothalamic and thalamic paraventricular nuclei, central nucleus of amygdala, bed nucleus of the stria terminalis, and medial preoptic area, peaking at 1 hr and diminishing at 3 hr. In addition, at 3 hr a new pattern of c-fos activity emerged--the arcuate nucleus and cells at the external margins throughout the brain now expressed c-fos mRNA. Corticotropin-releasing hormone mRNA levels were doubled in the paraventricular nucleus at 1 and 3 hr, concomitant with elevations in plasma adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH) and corticosterone. Tyrosine hydroxylase mRNA levels in the brainstem did not change. The c-fos mRNA induction patterns reveal a temporally dynamic response to interleukin-1 administration. We propose that the early set of structures responding to interleukin-1 initiates the neuroendocrine response to cytokines. Coactivation of the area postrema and nucleus of the solitary tract may reflect entry into the brain and neural transduction of the peripheral signal. The late set--including the nucleus of the solitary tract, arcuate nucleus, and the brain's edge--may reflect cellular activation along the diffusion routes traveled by interleukin-1 or a bioactive transduction product, because the pattern of edge labeling is similar to the autoradiographic pattern of flow lf radiolabeled tracer substances in the cerebrospinal fluid. The late c-fos mRNA response to interleukin-1, therefore, may represent a demonstration of information transfer in the parasynaptic mode, also known as volume transmission.