Recent demonstrations of survival-promoting activity by neurotrophic agents in diverse neuronal systems have raised the possibility of pharmacological therapy for inherited and degenerative disorders of the central nervous system. We have shown previously that, in the retina, basic fibroblast growth factor delays photoreceptor degeneration in Royal College of Surgeons rats with inherited retinal dystrophy and that the growth factor reduces or prevents the rapid photoreceptor degeneration produced by constant light in the rat. This light-damage model now provides an efficient way to assess quantitatively the survival-promoting activity in vivo of a number of growth factors and other molecules. We report here that photoreceptors can be significantly protected from the damaging effects of light by intravitreal injection of eight different growth factors, cytokines, and neurotrophins that typically act through several distinct receptor families. In addition to basic fibroblast growth factor, those factors providing a high degree of photoreceptor rescue include brain-derived neurotrophic factor, ciliary neurotrophic factor, interleukin 1 beta, and acidic fibroblast growth factor; those with less activity include neurotrophin 3, insulin-like growth factor II, and tumor necrosis factor alpha; those showing little or no protective effect are nerve growth factor, epidermal growth factor, platelet-derived growth factor, insulin, insulin-like growth factor I, heparin, and laminin. Although we used at least one relatively high concentration of each agent (the highest available), it is still possible that other concentrations or factor combinations might be more protective. Injecting heparin along with acidic fibroblast growth factor or basic fibroblast growth factor further enhanced the degree of photoreceptor survival and also suppressed the increased incidence of macrophages produced by either factor, especially basic fibroblast growth factor. These results now provide the impetus for determining the normal function in the retina, mechanism(s) of rescue, and therapeutic potential in human eye diseases for each agent.