Many major physiological changes occur within the rodent central nervous system (CNS) during the first few postnatal weeks. These include axonogenesis, synaptogenesis and myelination. Concomitant with CNS development over this period, there is a decrease in susceptibility to many neurotropic virus infections in that infection of suckling animals results in lethal encephalitis whereas infection of weanling animals is not lethal. The events underlying this dramatic change in susceptibility have been unclear. Here we demonstrate that age-related virulence of the neurotrophic alphavirus, Semliki Forest virus is dependent upon ability of the infection to spread in the CNS. This is not determined by maturity of interferon, or specific immune responses or the blood brain barrier, but by maturity of neuronal systems. Detailed study of the course of infection in the cortex, hippocampus and cerebellum during their postnatal development indicates that as these and other neuronal systems mature they become resistant to spread of the virus and the pattern of infection changes from widespread to focal.