Adenovirus-mediated transfer of the nerve growth factor gene promotes significant recovery of age-related cholinergic neuronal deficits in aged rats, but the effects of such treatment on cognitive dysfunction remain unclear. Herein we report a beneficial effect of first-generation adenovirus-mediated nerve growth factor gene transfer (AdNGF) on the spatial learning and memory of aged rats. The NGF protein was detected by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay in cerebrospinal fluid as early as 3 days after gene transfer and was expressed for at least 30 days. Escape latency in the Morris water maze hidden-platform test was significantly improved on day 8 postinoculation in memory-impaired rats treated with AdNGF as well as at later testing intervals. Ultimately, the escape latency values for the AdNGF group become indistinguishable from those for aged rats with normal learning capacity. Immunohistochemical analysis of septal cholinergic neurons for choline acetyltransferase (ChAT) showed significant increases in both the number and somal distribution of ChAT-positive cells after inoculation of memory-impaired rats with AdNGF. Improvement in memory performance was positively correlated with increases in both NGF concentration in cerebrospinal fluid (r = 0.73, p = 0.005) and the number of ChAT-staining cells (r = 0.77, p = 0.0022). We conclude that AdNGF can improve cognitive function in memory-impaired aged rats and, with refinements in vector-driven expression of the transgene, may prove suitable for use in humans.