Ciliary neurotrophic factor (CNTF) is a 200-amino acid protein expressed in high concentrations by peripheral nerves and is thought to be important for the survival and regeneration of injured motoneurons (Lin et al., J Biol Chem 265:8942-8947, 1990). To better understand CNTF's role in nerve injury we have characterized the effects of crush injury on the expression of CNTF in adult rat sciatic nerves using specific antibody and RNA probes. Following a crush injury, both the protein and mRNA levels undergo pronounced decreases distal to the crush. These changes in CNTF expression were qualitatively distinct from changes in the expression of the low-affinity NGF receptor (p75NGFR), which increases following crush. Thus, the changes in CNTF levels do not reflect an overall down-regulation of mRNA during degeneration, and are inconsistent with the proposed role of CNTF in neuronal injury, since its levels are decreasing at the same time as the requirement for neurotrophic support is increasing.