Diets rich in SFA have been implicated in Alzheimer's disease (AD). There is strong evidence to suggest that microglial activation augments the progression of AD. However, it remains uncertain whether SFA can initiate microglial activation and whether this response can cause neuronal death. Using the BV-2 microglial cell line and primary microglial culture, we showed that palmitic acid (PA) and stearic acid (SA) could activate microglia, as assessed by reactive morphological changes and significantly increased secretion of pro-inflammatory cytokines, NO and reactive oxygen species, which trigger primary neuronal death. In addition, the mRNA level of these pro-inflammatory mediators determined by RT-PCR was also increased by PA and SA. We further investigated the intracellular signalling mechanism underlying the release of pro-inflammatory mediators from PA-activated microglial cells. The present results showed that PA activated the phosphorylation and nuclear translocation of the p65 subunit of NF-κB. Furthermore, pyrrolidine dithiocarbamate, a NF-κB inhibitor, attenuated the production of pro-inflammatory mediators except for IL-6 in PA-stimulated microglia. Administration of anti-Toll-like receptor (TLR)4-neutralising antibody repressed PA-induced NF-κB activation and pro-inflammatory mediator production. In conclusion, the present in vitro study demonstrates that SFA could activate microglia and stimulate the TLR4/NF-κB pathway to trigger the production of pro-inflammatory mediators, which may contribute to neuronal death.