The effects of exogenous vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) on angiogenesis, blood-brain barrier permeability and astroglial proliferation in the adult rat CNS in situ were investigated. Recombinant human VEGF(165) (25 or 50 ng/ml) was delivered for up to 1 week using either intracerebral osmotic minipumps or less traumatic subdural gelatin sponge placement. By 3 days, VEGF delivery caused significantly increased cerebral angiogenesis (25 ng/ml was most effective) in both experimental models when compared to saline controls; VEGF infusion resulted in a 100% increase in an index of vascular proliferation, and gelatin sponge delivery produced a 65% increase. The blood-brain barrier hallmark endothelial glucose transporter-1 was not present in nascent vascular sprouts. Infusion of VEGF produced extensive protein leakage that persisted after saline-induced permeability was mostly resolved, while gelatin sponge administration caused milder barrier dysfunction. Administration of the angiogenic factor had unexpected proliferative effects on astroglia in both models, resulting in an 80-85% increase in mitotically active astroglia when compared to controls. Immunohistochemical results and semi-quantitative reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction indicated that the VEGF receptors flk-1 and flt-1 were up-regulated in response to the infusion trauma; flt-1 was localized to reactive astroglia, while flk-1 was expressed in vascular endothelium but predominantly in neuronal somata and processes adjacent to the delivery site. mRNA for the VEGF(121), VEGF(165) and VEGF(188) isoforms was also increased after delivery of the recombinant protein. These data show that VEGF application has substantial proliferative effects on CNS endothelium and astroglia and causes up-regulation of its own message. Flt-1 and flk-1 receptor mRNAs and proteins are up-regulated in both vascular and non-vascular cell types following infusion trauma. From these results we suggest that administered VEGF has heretofore unanticipated pleiotrophic effects in the adult CNS.