The roles of activated glia and of glial cytokines in the pathogenesis of Alzheimer's disease are reviewed. Interleukin-1 (IL-1), a microglia-derived acute phase cytokine, activates astrocytes and induces expression of the astrocyte-derived cytokine, S100 beta, which stimulates neurite growth (and thus has been implicated in neuritic plaque formation) and increases intracellular free calcium levels. Interleukin-1 also upregulates expression and processing of beta-amyloid precursor proteins (beta-APPs) (thus favoring beta-amyloid deposition) and induces expression of alpha 1-antichymotrypsin, thromboplastin, the complement protein C3, and apolipoprotein E, all of which are present in neuritic plaques. These cytokines, and the molecular and cellular events that they engender, form a complex of interactions that may be capable of self-propagation, leading to chronic overexpression of glial cytokines with neurodegenerative consequences. Self-propagation may be facilitated by means of several reinforcing feedback loops. beta-Amyloid, for instance, directly activates microglia, thus inducing further IL-1 production, and activates the complement system, which also leads to microglial activation with IL-1 expression. Self-propagation also could result when S100 beta-induced increases in intraneuronal free calcium levels lead to neuronal injury and death with consequent microglial activation. Such chronic, self-propagating, cytokine-mediated molecular and cellular reactions would explain the progressive neurodegeneration and dementia of Alzheimer's disease.