In addition to being essential supporters of neuronal function, astrocytes are now recognized as active elements in the brain. Astrocytes sense and integrate synaptic activity and, depending on intracellular Ca(2+) levels, release gliotransmitters (e.g. glutamate, d-serine and ATP) that have feedback actions on neurons. Recent experimental results have raised the possibility that quantitative variations in gliotransmission might contribute to disorders of the nervous system. Here, we discuss targeted molecular genetic approaches that have demonstrated that alterations in protein expression in astrocytes can lead to serious changes in neuronal function. We also introduce the concept of 'astrocyte activation spectrum' in which enhanced and reduced gliotransmission might contribute to epilepsy and schizophrenia, respectively. The results of future experimental tests of the astrocyte activation spectrum, which relates gliotransmission to neurological and psychiatric disorders, might point to a new therapeutic target in the brain.