To define genes associated with or responsible for the neurodegenerative changes observed in transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, we analyzed gene expression in scrapie-infected mouse brain using "mRNA differential display." The RNA transcripts of eight genes were increased 3-8-fold in the brains of scrapie-infected animals. Five of these genes have not previously been reported to exhibit increased expression in this disease: cathepsin S, the C1q B-chain of complement, apolipoprotein D, and two previously unidentified genes denominated scrapie-responsive gene (ScRG)-1 and ScRG-2, which are preferentially expressed in brain tissue. Increased expression of the three remaining genes, beta2 microglobulin, F4/80, and metallothionein II, has previously been reported to occur in experimental scrapie. Kinetic analysis revealed a concomitant increase in the levels of ScRG-1, cathepsin S, the C1q B-chain of complement, and beta2 microglobulin mRNA as well as glial fibrillary acidic protein and F4/80 transcripts, markers of astrocytosis and microglial activation, respectively. In contrast, the level of ScRG-2, apolipoprotein D, and metallothionein II mRNA was only increased at the terminal stage of the disease. ScRG-1 mRNA was found to be preferentially expressed in glial cells and to code for a short protein of 47 amino acids with a strong hydrophobic N-terminal region.