Neuronal injury during acute viral infection of the brain is associated with the development of persistent cognitive deficits and seizures in humans. In C57BL/6 mice acutely infected with the Theiler's murine encephalomyelitis virus, hippocampal CA1 neurons are injured by a rapid innate immune response, resulting in profound memory deficits. In contrast, infected SJL and B6xSJL F1 hybrid mice exhibit essentially complete hippocampal and memory preservation. Analysis of brain-infiltrating leukocytes revealed that SJL mice mount a sharply attenuated inflammatory monocyte response as compared to B6 mice. Bone marrow transplantation experiments isolated the attenuation to the SJL immune system. Adoptive transfer of B6 inflammatory monocytes into acutely infected B6xSJL hosts converted these mice to a hippocampal damage phenotype and induced a cognitive deficit marked by failure to recognize a novel object. These findings show that inflammatory monocytes are the critical cellular mediator of hippocampal injury during acute picornavirus infection of the brain.