The amyloid beta protein is deposited in the brains of patients with Alzheimer's disease but its pathogenic role is unknown. In culture, the amyloid beta protein was neurotrophic to undifferentiated hippocampal neurons at low concentrations and neurotoxic to mature neurons at higher concentrations. In differentiated neurons, amyloid beta protein caused dendritic and axonal retraction followed by neuronal death. A portion of the amyloid beta protein (amino acids 25 to 35) mediated both the trophic and toxic effects and was homologous to the tachykinin neuropeptide family. The effects of the amyloid beta protein were mimicked by tachykinin antagonists and completely reversed by specific tachykinin agonists. Thus, the amyloid beta protein could function as a neurotrophic factor for differentiating neurons, but at high concentrations in mature neurons, as in Alzheimer's disease, could cause neuronal degeneration.