The capacity of vascular endothelial cells to modulate their phenotype in response to changes in environmental conditions is one of the most important characteristics of this cell type. Since different growth factors may play an important signalling role in this adaptive process we have investigated the effect of endothelial cell growth factor (ECGF) on morphological, physiological and molecular characteristics of cerebral endothelial cells (CECs). CECs grown in the presence of ECGF and its cofactor heparin exhibit an epithelial-like morphology (type I CECs). Upon removal of growth factors, CECs develop an elongated spindle-like shape (type II CECs) which is accompanied by the reorganization of actin filaments and the induction of alpha-actin expression. Since one of the most important functions of CECs is the creation of a selective diffusion barrier between the blood and the central nervous system (CNS), we have studied the expression of junction-related proteins in both cell types. We have found that removal of growth factors from endothelial cultures leads to the downregulation of cadherin and occludin protein levels. The loss of junctional proteins was accompanied by a significant increase in the migratory activity and an altered protease activity profile of the cells. TGF-beta1 suppressed endothelial migration in all experiments. Our data provide evidence to suggest that particular endothelial functions are largely controlled by the presence of growth factors. The differences in adhesiveness and migration may play a role in important physiological and pathological processes of endothelial cells such as vasculogenesis or tumor progression.