The amyloid precursor protein (APP) is involved in Alzheimer's disease (AD) because its degradation products accumulate abnormally in AD brains and APP mutations are associated with early onset AD. However, its role in health and disease appears to be complex, with different APP derivatives showing either neurotoxic or neurotrophic effects in vitro. To elucidate the effects APP has on the brain in vivo, cDNAs encoding different forms of human APP (hAPP) were placed downstream of the neuron-specific enolase (NSE) promoter. In multiple lines of NSE-hAPP transgenic mice neuronal overexpression of hAPP was accompanied by an increase in the number of synaptophysin immunoreactive (SYN-IR) presynaptic terminals and in the expression of the growth-associated marker GAP-43. In lines expressing moderate levels of hAPP751 or hAPP695, this effect was more prominent in homozygous than in heterozygous transgenic mice. In contrast, a line with several-fold higher levels of hAPP695 expression showed less increase in SYN-IR presynaptic terminals per amount of hAPP expressed than the lower expressor lines and a decrease in synaptotrophic effects in homozygous compared with heterozygous offspring. Transgenic mice (2-24 months of age) showed no evidence for amyloid deposits or neurodegeneration. These findings suggest that APP may be important for the formation/maintenance of synapses in vivo and that its synaptotrophic effects may be critically dependent on the expression levels of different APP isoforms. Alterations in APP expression, processing or function could contribute to the synaptic pathology seen in AD.