Amyloid precursor protein (APP) gives rise to the amyloid-β peptide and thus has a key role in the pathogenesis of Alzheimer disease. By contrast, the physiological functions of APP and the closely related APP-like proteins (APLPs) remain less well understood. Studying these physiological functions has been challenging and has required a careful long-term strategy, including the analysis of different App-knockout and Aplp-knockout mice. In this Review, we summarize these findings, focusing on the in vivo roles of APP family members and their processing products for CNS development, synapse formation and function, brain injury and neuroprotection, as well as ageing. In addition, we discuss the implications of APP physiology for therapeutic approaches.