Increased binding of the peripheral benzodiazepine binding site (PBBS) ligand [3H]PK11195 in the central nervous system of patients suffering from acute and chronic neuropathology has been associated with reactive microgliosis. However, it remains uncertain which stages of microglial activation occur in conjunction with the increased [3H]PK11195 binding. We used quantitative autoradiography for [3H]PK11195 and quantitative polymerase chain reaction for PBBS mRNA and markers of early and late microglial activation to investigate the time-course of cellular responses in the hippocampus of mice with degeneration of the entorhinal-hippocampal perforant path. The axonal lesion evoked an increase in the Bmax for [3H]PK11195 in hippocampus which peaked at 2 days post-lesion, remained elevated at day 5 and began to decline at 10 days post-lesion. These changes occurred in the absence of significant changes in affinity in vitro. Quantitative polymerase chain reaction analysis of isolated hippocampi using exon-specific primers indicated the presence of several splice variants of PBBS mRNA, which appeared to be affected differentially by the lesion. The changes in PBBS mRNA and CD11b mRNA levels correlated with the Bmax for [3H]PK11195 during 10 days post-lesion, suggesting that microglial activation couples with increases in mRNA levels for these markers. In addition, the onset of changes in PBBS mRNA levels coincided with the significantly elevated tumor necrosis factor mRNA levels present during early microglial activation at 2 days post-lesion. We conclude that up-regulation of [3H]PK11195 binding and PBBS mRNA levels coincided with early microglial activation, characterized by concomitantly increased microglial tumor necrosis factor mRNA levels, and persisted throughout the period with reactive microgliosis.