We have developed and tested the biological activity and specificity of a novel fluorescent dextran-Texas Red-nerve growth factor (DTR-NGF) conjugate. DTR-NGF was found to promote survival and neurite outgrowth in cultured dissociated sympathetic neurons similarly to native NGF. The conjugate was taken up and transported retrogradely by terminal sympathetic nerves innervating the iris to neurons in the ipsilateral superior cervical ganglion (SCG) of young adult rats. Uptake and transport was assessed by counting numbers of labelled neurons and by measuring intensity of neuronal labelling using confocal microscopy and image analysis. DTR-NGF labelling in SCG neurons was shown to be dose-dependent with an EC(50) of 75 ng. Similar concentrations of unconjugated DTR resulted in no neuronal labelling. DTR-NGF uptake was competed off using a 50-fold excess of native NGF, resulting in a 73% reduction in numbers of labelled neurons. Pretreatment of nerve terminals with function-blocking antibodies against the low (p75) and high (TrkA) affinity NGF receptors resulted in a large (85-93%) reduction in numbers of DTR-NGF labelled neurons. Anti-p75 and anti-TrkA antibodies had comparable effects which were concentration-dependent. These findings indicate that both receptors are required for uptake of NGF in adult rat sympathetic neurons. In particular, the results provide strong evidence that the p75 receptor plays a more active role in transducing the NGF signal than has been proposed.