To better understand the role the human amyloid precursor protein (hAPP) plays in Alzheimer's disease (AD), it is essential to define its primary function(s). Here we expressed different hAPPs in neurons of transgenic (tg) mice to characterize their effects on the intact central nervous system (CNS). Immunolabeled brain sections of tg and non-tg mice were compared quantitatively by microdensitometry and computer-aided analysis of laser scanning confocal digitized images. Compared with non-tg mice, tg mice overexpressing hAPPs showed an increase in the number of synaptophysin immunoreactive presynaptic terminals as well as in the expression of the growth-associated marker GAP-43. While non-tg controls and tg mice expressing hAPP751 at moderate levels displayed a normal pattern of reinnervation of the dentate gyrus following perforant pathway transection, tg mice expressing hAPP695 at severalfold higher levels showed an accentuation of the synaptic loss and no sprouting reaction. In addition, expression of hAPP751 at moderate levels effectively protected neurons against excitotoxic injury induced either acutely by systemic injection of kainic acid or chronically by transgene-driven glial production of the soluble HIV-1 protein gp120. Neuronal expression of hAPP695 at higher levels provided less excitoprotection. Our findings are consistent with the postulate that APP plays a role in the formation/maintenance of synapses and that processes which affect this function could contribute to the synaptic pathology seen in AD. Our study also revealed that hAPPs can exert important excitoprotective functions in vivo and that the efficiency of this protection may depend on the hAPP isoform expressed as well as on the level of neuronal hAPP expression. Neuronal overexpression of hAPP beyond a certain level may have detrimental effects on the CNS, particularly in the context of secondary neural injuries.