Vascular endothelial growth factor is a highly conserved, heparin-binding protein which mediates a number of critical developmental processes in both vertebrates and invertebrates, including angiogenesis, vasculogenesis and hematopoiesis. We employed an organotypic rat explant model (produced from embryonic day 17 fetuses) to assess the effects of vascular endothelial growth factor on brain microvasculature in general and the ventral midbrain specifically. Immunohistochemistry using antisera to rat endothelial cell antigen and laminin demonstrated a robust, dose-dependent effect of vascular endothelial growth factor, resulting in increased vessel neogenesis, branching and lumen size by three days in vitro. This effect was blocked by addition of an anti-vascular endothelial growth factor antibody. At higher doses of vascular endothelial growth factor, the effect was attenuated, though a statistically significant increase in both astrocyte, and neuronal density was observed using antisera to glial and neuronal markers. Tyrosine hydroxylase-immunoreactive (i.e. dopaminergic) neurons, particularly, exhibited increased survival in response to vascular endothelial growth factor application. Vascular endothelial growth factor had a mitogenic effect on endothelial cells and astrocytes, but not dopaminergic neurons, as demonstrated by the addition of [3H]thymidine to the cultures 2 h after the cultures were established. Similarly, results of a radioreceptor assay indicated that specific vascular endothelial growth factor binding sites were present on blood vessels and astrocytes, and were up-regulated by exposure to vascular endothelial growth factor. We conclude that, in explants of the ventral mesencephalon, exogenously applied vascular endothelial growth factor is mitogenic for endothelial cells and astrocytes, and promotes growth/survival of neurons in general and dopaminergic neurons in particular.