The earliest events of neuronal regeneration require resealing of the neurite's membrane after injury and the subsequent formation of a new growth cone. We have investigated these activities in vitro employing the large identified neurons of the snail Helisoma. Regeneration was elicited by transection of neurite processes and assessed by studying the formation of new growth cones from the proximal neurite stumps. Under normal conditions new growth cones formed rapidly in 100% of the preparations. This formation appeared to follow, however, a large rise in intracellular calcium and did not start until after the cells homeostatic machinery had re-established near baseline calcium levels. To test the hypothesis that elevated intracellular calcium levels delayed or inhibited growth cone formation, transections were performed after experimentally increasing intracellular calcium concentrations to different levels by either depolarization or by calcium ionophores. Under these conditions, regeneration was significantly retarded in a fashion dependent upon the intracellular calcium concentration. Another change in the extracellular milieu, namely lowering of the extracellular calcium concentration, also significantly retarded growth cone formation. Under these conditions neurons appeared unable to reseal their cut ends and eventually died. Taken together, these studies demonstrate the importance of both the extracellular and intracellular milieu at times immediately following neurite transection in determining whether or not the earliest stages of neuronal regeneration will occur.