Type I interferon is an essential component of the brain's innate immune defence, conferring protection against viral infection. Recently, dysregulation of the type I interferon pathway has been implicated in the pathogenesis of a spectrum of neuroinfectious and neuroinflammatory disorders. Underactivity of the type I interferon response is associated with a predisposition to herpes simplex encephalitis. Conversely, a group of 'interferonopathic' disorders, characterized by severe neuroinflammation and overactivity of type I interferon, has been described. Elucidation of the genetic basis of these Mendelian neuroinflammatory diseases has uncovered important links between nucleic acid sensors, innate immune activation and neuroinflammatory disease. These mechanisms have an important role in the pathogenesis of more common polygenic diseases that can affect the brain, such as lupus and cerebral small vessel disease. In this article, we review the spectrum of neurological disease associated with type I interferon dysregulation, as well as advances in our understanding of the molecular and cellular pathogenesis of these conditions. We highlight the potential utility of type I interferon as both a biomarker and a therapeutic target in neuroinflammatory disease.