Acidic fibroblast growth factor (aFGF) and basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF) are present in high levels in most areas of the embryonic rodent brain. To begin to understand the role of these growth factors in brain development, the effects of aFGF and bFGF on dissociated cell cultures prepared from embryonic and neonatal rat brain were studied. Addition of aFGF and heparin or bFGF alone to serum-free cultures of the dissociated Embryonic Day (E) 14.5 mesencephalon stimulates cell proliferation, as judged by [3H]thymidine autoradiography, leading to a maximal 75-fold increase in the total number of cells. This effect is dose-dependent with half-maximal increases at concentrations of about 5-6 ng/ml of aFGF or bFGF and is inhibited by the FGF antagonist HBGF-1U. The effect of aFGF on cell proliferation in cultures prepared from E14.5 mesencephalon is similar to that in cultures prepared from E14.5 cortex. However, in cultures prepared from E14.5 rhombencephalon or diencephalon, the proliferative effect of aFGF is much reduced. In all brain areas studied, the proliferative effect of aFGF declines with increasing age. Immunocytochemical analysis of E14.5 mesencephalic cultures demonstrated that the aFGF-induced increase in cell number is due to the proliferation of A2B5-immunoreactive (IR) glial precursor cells, but not of neuronal precursors, fibroblasts, or microglial cells. Moreover, differentiated glial fibrillary acidic protein-IR astrocytes and 2',3'-cyclic nucleotide 3'-phosphohydrolase-IR oligodendrocytes were not observed in cultures continuously treated with aFGF or bFGF, but were observed in high numbers after removal of the growth factors. These results suggest (1) that aFGF and bFGF are potent mitogens for glial precursor cells in all embryonic brain regions, (2) that the magnitude of the effects of aFGF depends on embryonic age and brain region, and (3) that both growth factors inhibit the differentiation of astrocyte or oligodendrocyte precursors. These observations made in vitro strongly support the hypothesis that FGF plays a critical role in gliogenesis and the timing of glial differentiation in the brain.