Abstract Background Microglial activation-mediated neuroinflammation is a major contributor to early brain injury (EBI) after subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH). MicroRNA-124 (miR-124) is the most abundant miRNAs in the central nervous system (CNS) and plays a vital role in microglial activation by targeting protein CCAAT-enhancer-binding protein α (C/EBPα). It has been reported that the CX3CL1/CX3CR1 axis is involved in the delivery of miR-124 from neurons to microglia. Methods An experimental rat SAH model was established by injecting autologous arterial blood into the prechiasmatic cistern, and cultured primary neurons and microglia were exposed to oxyhemoglobin to mimic SAH in vitro. We additionally exploited specific expression plasmids encoding CX3CL1 and CX3CR1. Results We observed significant decreases in CX3CL1 and CX3CR1 in the brain tissues of SAH patients. We also observed decreases in the levels of CX3CL1 in neurons and CX3CR1 in microglia after SAH in rats. Moreover, microglia exhibited an activated phenotype with macrophage-like morphology and high levels of CD45 and major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class II after SAH. After overexpression of CX3CL1/CX3CR1, the level of CD45 and MHC class II and the release of inflammatory factors tumor necrosis factor α, interleukin 1α and complement 1q were significantly decreased. There was also increased neuronal degeneration and behavior dysfunction after SAH, both of which were inhibited by CX3CL1/CX3CR1 overexpression. Additionally, we found that the delivery of exosomal miR-124 from neurons to microglia was significantly reduced after SAH, accompanied by an increase in C/EBPα expression, and was inhibited by CX3CL1/CX3CR1 overexpression. In conclusion, the CX3CL1/CX3CR1 axis may play protective roles after SAH by promoting the delivery of exosomal miR-124 to microglia and attenuate microglial activation and neuroinflammation. Conclusions CX3CL1/CX3CR1 axis may be a potential intervention target for the inhibition of SAH-induced EBI by promoting exosome transport of miR-124 to microglia.