The central nervous system responds to diverse neurologic injuries with a vigorous activation of astrocytes. While this phenomenon is found in many different species, its function is obscure. Understanding the molecular profile characteristic of reactive astrocytes should help define their function. The purpose of this review is to provide a summary of molecules whose levels of expression differentiate activated from resting astrocytes and to use the molecular profile of reactive astrocytes as the basis for speculations on the functions of these cells. At present, reactive astrocytosis is defined primarily as an increase in the number and size of cells expressing glial fibrillary acidic protein. In vivo, this increase in glial fibrillary acidic protein-positive cells reflects predominantly phenotypic changes of resident astroglia rather than migration or proliferation of such cells. Upon activation, astrocytes upmodulate the expression of a large number of molecules. From this molecular profile it becomes apparent that reactive astrocytes may benefit the injured nervous system by participating in diverse biological processes. For example, upregulation of proteases and protease inhibitors could help remodel the extracellular matrix, regulate the concentration of different proteins in the neuropil and clear up debris from degenerating cells. Cytokines are key mediators of immunity and inflammation and could play a critical role in the regulation of the blood-central nervous system interface. Neurotrophic factors, transporter molecules and enzymes involved in the metabolism of excitotoxic amino acids or in the antioxidant pathway may help protect neurons and other brain cells by controlling neurotoxin levels and contributing to homeostasis within the central nervous system. Therefore, an impairment of astroglial performance has the potential to exacerbate neuronal dysfunction. Based on the synopsis of studies presented, a number of issues become apparent that deserve a more extensive analysis. Among them are the relative contribution of microglia and astrocytes to early wound repair, the characterization of astroglial subpopulations, the specificity of the astroglial response in different diseases as well as the analysis of reactive astrocytes with techniques that can resolve fast physiologic processes. Differences between reactive astrocytes in vivo and primary astrocytes in culture are discussed and underline the need for the development and exploitation of models that will allow the analysis of reactive astrocytes in the intact organism.