Reactive gliosis, which occurs in response to damage to the central nervous system, has been recognized for years but is not yet understood. We describe here a tissue culture model of reactive astrocytes used to characterize their properties. Cultures are prepared 1 week following 6-hydroxydopamine (6-OHDA) lesion of rat substantia nigra and compared with astrocytes cultured from normal adult rats or rats injected with saline only. Astrocytes from the 6-OHDA-lesioned side contained elevated levels of glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP) and GFAP mRNA and were intensely immunoreactive for GFAP, vimentin, and two epitopes that in vivo are found only on reactive astrocytes. The basal content of nerve growth factor (NGF) mRNA and NGF in astrocytes from 6-OHDA-lesioned rats was significantly higher relative to control astrocytes. Two inflammatory cytokines, interleukin-1beta and interferon-gamma, increased synthesis of NGF up to 20-fold in the reactive cells, whereas there was no response in the normal adult astrocytes. Astrocytes from postnatal day 2 rats shared many of the properties of the reactive adult astrocytes. These cultures offer the possibility to characterize the cellular and molecular properties of reactive astrocytes and to determine the factors responsible for activation of astrocytes.