Obese pregnant women have increased levels of proinflammatory cytokines in maternal circulation and placental tissues. However, the pathways contributing to placental inflammation in obesity are largely unknown. We tested the hypothesis that maternal body mass index (BMI) was associated with elevated proinflammatory cytokines in maternal and fetal circulations and increased activation of placental inflammatory pathways. A total of 60 women of varying pre-/early pregnancy BMI, undergoing delivery by Cesarean section at term, were studied. Maternal and fetal (cord) plasma were collected for analysis of insulin, leptin, IL-1beta, IL-6, IL-8, monocyte chemoattractant protein (MCP) 1, and TNFalpha by multiplex ELISA. Activation of the inflammatory pathways in the placenta was investigated by measuring the phosphorylated and total protein expression of p38-mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK), c-Jun-N-terminal kinase (JNK)-MAPK, signal transducer-activated transcription factor (STAT) 3, caspase-1, IL-1beta, IkappaB-alpha protein, and p65 DNA-binding activity. To determine the link between activated placental inflammatory pathways and elevated maternal cytokines, cultured primary human trophoblast (PHT) cells were treated with physiological concentrations of insulin, MCP-1, and TNFalpha, and inflammatory signaling analyzed by Western blot. Maternal BMI was positively correlated with maternal insulin, leptin, MCP-1, and TNFalpha, whereas only fetal leptin was increased with BMI. Placental phosphorylation of p38-MAPK and STAT3, and the expression of IL-1beta protein, were increased with maternal BMI; phosphorylation of p38-MAPK was also correlated with birth weight. In contrast, placental NFkappaB, JNK and caspase-1 signaling, and fetal cytokine levels were unaffected by maternal BMI. In PHT cells, p38-MAPK was activated by MCP-1 and TNFalpha, whereas STAT3 phosphorylation was increased following TNFalpha treatment. Maternal BMI is associated with elevated maternal cytokines and activation of placental p38-MAPK and STAT3 inflammatory pathways, without changes in fetal systemic inflammatory profile. Activation of p38-MAPK by MCP-1 and TNFalpha, and STAT3 by TNFalpha, suggests a link between elevated proinflammatory cytokines in maternal plasma and activation of placental inflammatory pathways. We suggest that inflammatory processes associated with elevated maternal BMI may influence fetal growth by altering placental function.