Cytokines belonging to the type I interferon (e.g. interferon-alpha) family are important in the host response to infection and may have complex and broad ranging actions in the central nervous system (CNS) that may be beneficial or harmful. To better understand the impact of the CNS expression of the type I interferons (IFN), transgenic mice were developed that produce IFN-alpha(1) chronically from astrocytes. In two independent transgenic lines with moderate and low levels of astrocyte IFN-alpha mRNA expression respectively, a spectrum of transgene dose- and age-dependent structural and functional neurological alterations are induced. Structural changes include neurodegeneration with loss of cholinergic neurons, gliosis, angiopathy with mononuclear cell cuffing, progressive calcification affecting basal ganglia and cerebellum and the up-regulation of a number of IFN-alpha-regulated genes. At a functional level, in vivo and in vitro electrophysiological studies revealed impaired neuronal function and disturbed synaptic plasticity with pronounced hippocampal hyperexcitability. Severe behavioral alterations were also evident in higher expressor GFAP-IFNalpha mice which developed fatal seizures around 13 weeks of age precluding their further behavioral assessment. Modest impairments in discrimination learning were measured in lower expressor GFAP-IFNalpha mice at various ages (7-42 weeks). The behavioral and electrophysiological findings suggest regional changes in hippocampal excitability which may be linked to abnormal calcium metabolism and loss of cholinergic neurons in the GIFN mice. Thus, these transgenic mice provide a novel animal model in which to further evaluate the mechanisms that underlie the diverse actions of type I interferons in the intact CNS and to link specific structural changes with functional impairments.