Tumor necrosis factor (TNF) has been implicated as a proximal mediator of the septic syndrome. To evaluate the possible role of TNF in leukocyte activation in septicemia, we performed a cross-over saline- controlled study in six healthy men who were intravenously injected with recombinant human TNF (50 micrograms/m2), and analyzed changes in circulating white blood cells and parameters for neutrophil and monocyte activation. TNF elicited a very rapid neutropenia, reaching a nadir after 15 minutes, followed by a neutrophilia. Lymphocytes showed a sustained decrease, whereas monocytes declined transiently. TNF injection was also associated with neutrophil activation, as reflected by a mean fivefold increase in the plasma concentrations of elastase- alpha 1-antitrypsin complexes and a mean sevenfold increase in plasma lactoferrin levels. Serum neopterin, a marker of monocyte activation, was significantly increased 24 hours after the administration of TNF. These changes occurred in the absence of detectable complement activation, as indicated by unchanged C3a-desarg plasma values. Serum interleukin-6 showed a nearly 40-fold increase after TNF injection, whereas interleukin-1 remained undetectable throughout. We conclude that the systemic release of TNF, triggered early after invasive infection, may be involved in the alterations in circulating leukocyte numbers and in the activation of leukocytes, during the development of the septic syndrome.