Over a half a century of research has confirmed that neurotrophic factors promote the survival and process outgrowth of isolated neurons in vitro. The mechanisms by which neurotrophic factors mediate these survival-promoting effects have also been well characterized. In vivo, peripheral neurons are critically dependent on limited amounts of neurotrophic factors during development. After peripheral nerve injury, the adult mammalian peripheral nervous system responds by making neurotrophic factors once again available, either by autocrine or paracrine sources. Three families of neurotrophic factors were compared, the neurotrophins, the GDNF family of neurotrophic factors, and the neuropoetic cytokines. Following a general overview of the mechanisms by which these neurotrophic factors mediate their effects, we reviewed the temporal pattern of expression of the neurotrophic factors and their receptors by axotomized motoneurons as well as in the distal nerve stump after peripheral nerve injury. We discussed recent experiments from our lab and others which have examined the role of neurotrophic factors in peripheral nerve injury. Although our understanding of the mechanisms by which neurotrophic factors mediate their effects in vivo are poorly understood, evidence is beginning to emerge that similar phenomena observed in vitro also apply to nerve regeneration in vivo.