Morphological changes and the molecular mechanisms associated with the maturation of astrocytes were studied under normal and thyroid hormone-deficient conditions using long-term (30 days) primary cultures derived from the neonatal rat brain. Immunocytochemical staining of cells with a monoclonal antibody specific to glial fibrillary acidic protein demonstrated for the first time that, similar to their maturation in vivo, astrocytes maintained in normal serum-containing medium can undergo complete maturation involving two distinct stages of morphological differentiation (from radial glia to flat polygonal cells with epithelioid morphology and then to mature process-bearing cells with stellate morphology). Deficiency of thyroid hormone delays the first step and totally blocks the second stage of differentiation in the maturation process. Comparative staining of normal and thyroid hormone-deficient astrocytes with filamentous actin-specific fluorescein isothiocyanate-phalloidin and quantitation of the various forms of intracellular actin using an improved DNase I assay demonstrated that maturation of astroglial cells is associated with characteristic alterations in the level of cytoskeletal and non-cytoskeletal filamentous (F) actin. In particular, the maintenance of the epithelioid form of the hypothyroid astrocytes is associated with a progressive increase in the level of cytoskeletal F-actin and a concomitant decline in the level of non-cytoskeletal F-actin. Quantitation of actin mRNA by Northern blot analysis and studies on the rate of actin synthesis at various stages of differentiation showed that the initial transformation into the epithelioid form is associated with an increase in the rate of synthesis of actin and the expression of its mRNA, while the final transformation into the mature process-bearing form is correlated with a decline in these parameters. The results indicate that thyroid hormone plays an obligatory role in promoting the differentiation and maturation of astrocytes, and that during this process the hormone regulates the expression of actin and its intracellular organization in a way conducive to morphological differentiation.