Evidence concerning the presence or absence of common neuronglia lineages in the postnatal mammalian central nervous system is still a matter of speculation. We address this problem using optic nerve explants, which show an extremely long survival in culture. Morphological, immunocytochemical and immunochemical methods were applied. The results obtained from in vitro tissue were compared with optic nerves (ONs) and whole-brain samples from animals of different ages. Newborn rat ONs represented the starting material of our tissue culture; they are composed of unmyelinated axons, astrocytes and progenitor cells but devoid of neuronal cell bodies. At this age, Western blots of ONs were positively stained by neurofilament and synapsin I specific antibodies. These bands increased in intensity during postnatal in situ development. In explant cultures, the glia cells reach a stage of functional differentiation and they maintain, together with undifferentiated cells, a complex histotypic organization. After 6 days in vitro, neurofilaments and synapsin I could not be detected on immunoblots, indicating that 1) axonal degeneration was completed, and 2) neuronal somata were absent at the time. Surprisingly, after about 4-5 weeks in culture, a new cell type appeared, which showed characteristics typical of neurons. After 406 days in vitro, neurofilaments and synapsin I were unequivocally detectable on Western blots. Furthermore, both immunocytochemical staining and light and electron microscopic examinations corroborated the presence of this earlier-observed cell type. These in vitro results clearly show the high developmental plasticity of ON progenitor cells, even late in development. The existence of a common neuron-glia precursor, which never gives rise to neurons in situ, is suggested.