Background: Avian influenza virus (AIV) is classified into two pathotypes, low pathogenic (LP) and high pathogenic ( HP), based on virulence in chickens. Differences in pathogenicity between HPAIV and LPAIV might eventually be related to specific characteristics of strains, tissue tropism and host responses. Methods: To study differences in disease development between HPAIV and LPAIV, we examined the first appearance and eventual load of viral RNA in multiple organs as well as host responses in brain and intestine of chickens infected with two closely related H7N1 HPAIV or LPAIV strains. Results: Both H7N1 HPAIV and LPAIV spread systemically in chickens after a combined intranasal/intratracheal inoculation. In brain, large differences in viral RNA load and host gene expression were found between H7N1 HPAIV and LPAIV infected chickens. Chicken embryo brain cell culture studies revealed that both HPAIV and LPAIV could infect cultivated embryonic brain cells, but in accordance with the absence of the necessary proteases, replication of LPAIV was limited. Furthermore, TUNEL assay indicated apoptosis in brain of HPAIV infected chickens only. In intestine, where endoproteases that cleave HA of LPAIV are available, we found minimal differences in the amount of viral RNA and a large overlap in the transcriptional responses between HPAIV and LPAIV infected chickens. Interestingly, brain and ileum differed clearly in the cellular pathways that were regulated upon an AI infection. Conclusions: Although both H7N1 HPAIV and LPAIV RNA was detected in a broad range of tissues beyond the respiratory and gastrointestinal tract, our observations indicate that differences in pathogenicity and mortality between HPAIV and LPAIV could originate from differences in virus replication and the resulting host responses in vital organs like the brain.