We have purified and characterized the growth inhibitory factor (GIF) that is abundant in the normal human brain, but greatly reduced in the Alzheimer's disease (AD) brain. GIF inhibited survival and neurite formation of cortical neurons in vitro. Purified GIF is a 68 amino acid small protein, and its amino acid sequence is 70% identical to that of human metallothionein II with a 1 amino acid insert and a unique 6 amino acid insert in the NH2-terminal and the COOH-terminal portions, respectively. The antibodies to the unique sequence of GIF revealed a distinct subset of astrocytes in the gray matter that appears to be closely associated with neuronal perikarya and dendrites. In the AD cortex, the number of GIF-positive astrocytes was drastically reduced, suggesting that GIF is down-regulated in the subset of astrocytes during AD.