The importance of trophic agents for the development and maintenance of neurons and their presence in mesenchyme-derived neuronal target organs such as muscle is well exemplified by the protein nerve growth factor (NGF) and its synthesis in target areas of sympathetic and sensory nerves. Stringent conceptualization of target organ-regulated neuronal maintenance would imply that neurons were able to provide trophic support to their presynaptic counterparts. We present data suggesting that basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF), a mitogen and trophic factor for several neuron populations in vitro, may be such a protein involved in retrograde trophic neuron - neuron interaction. Basic FGF or a closely related protein is present in the adrenal medulla and its sympathetic neuron-like chromaffin cells. A polyclonal antibody specific for bFGF recognizes an 18 kD band in Western blots of bFGF-enriched bovine adrenal medulla extracts and immunostains isolated bovine chromaffin cells. This antibody also blocks the bFGF-like activity present in adrenal medullary extracts and chromaffin granule extracts that both promote in vitro survival of embryonic chick ciliary ganglionic neurons. Furthermore, like bFGF, the soluble proteins of bovine chromaffin granules are mitogenic for cultured bovine aorta endothelial cells. Electrothermal unilateral destruction of the adrenal medulla causes the disappearance of 25% of Nissl-stained neurons in the ipsilateral intermediolateral column (IML) of the spinal cord between levels Th7 and L1, which contains the preganglionic neurons projecting to the adrenal medulla. Substitution of the adrenal medulla by gel foams soaked with bFGF prevents neuron losses in the IML. The effects are specific in that NGF and cytochrome C are ineffective. Our results suggest that bFGF is located in chromaffin cells and maintains target-deprived autonomic spinal cord neurons, thus possibly acting as an interneuronal trophic messenger in vivo.