We have used retrograde fluorescent tracing (fast blue) both before (prelabeling) and at time points after selective unilateral adrenomedullectomy in vivo (post-labeling) in order to investigate the survival and morphology of sympathoadrenal preganglionic (SAP) neurons located in the lower thoracic intermediolateral (IML) cell column of the adult rat spinal cord. By prelabeling with fast blue it was found that the majority (i.e., more than 85%) of the SAP neurons underwent degeneration and were lost from the IML cell column within 4 weeks after peripheral target lesion and administration of intramedullary gelfoam implants containing a nontrophic control protein cytochrome c. By contrast, atrophy and loss of SAP neurons was largely prevented by local treatment (intramedullary implants) with recombinant basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF) as determined from counts of large and "healthy-looking" prelabeled neurons within the IML column ipsilateral to the lesioned (i.e., operated) side 4 weeks postimplantation. The time course of withdrawal of preganglionic axons from their lesioned target area was investigated by fast blue injections into intramedullary (control or bFGF) implants at weekly intervals postimplantation (postlabeling) and was documented by counting the number of healthy SAP neurons that retained the label. Without bFGF treatment, progressive numerical loss of SAP neurons was evident within 1 to 4 weeks postlesioning, indicative of pronounced retrograde cell degeneration. Retrograde cell degeneration was insignificant during the first 2 weeks postimplantation after early postlesion treatment with exogenous bFGF; it was apparently postponed to occur after 1 month. Implantation of gelfoam containing neutralizing anti-bFGF-antibodies resulted in accelerated retrograde axon degeneration implying that bFGF is an endogenous trophic factor for SAP neurons. The results are consistent with the idea that SAP neurons actually die following peripheral target lesion and are not supported from other trophic sources. However, these neurons can be prevented from disconnection-induced death by providing exogenous bFGF. Limited amounts of endogenous FGF may also become available to SAP axons by disintegration of nerve terminal-surrounding cells delaying the process of retrograde SAP neuron death.