To further clarify the function of basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF) in the nervous system, we have examined its distribution, lesion-dependent regulation, retrograde transport, and trophic roles on rat hypoglossal neurons. In adult rats, bFGF-like immunoreactivity is localized in hypoglossal motoneurons, drastically reduced 2 days after axotomy, and re-expressed by 11 days. Neuron numbers and morphology assessed by Nissl staining are not affected by the lesion. 125J bFGF is specifically retrogradely transported by hypoglossal motoneurons from their peripheral nerve terminals. Moreover, bFGF stimulates the in vitro survival of hypoglossal neurons (ED50 2 ng/ml). In vivo administration of bFGF prevents lesion-induced motoneuron death to 14% in 7 day old rats and to 60% in 18 day old rats, but not the axotomy-induced decrease of choline acetyltransferase activity in the hypoglossal nucleus of adult rats. These results are consistent with a neurotrophic role of bFGF in the hypoglossal system.