We have examined the influence of normal and precrushed ("conditioned") sciatic nerve grafts on the survival and axonal growth of retinal ganglion cells (RGCs) in adult rats. Normal sciatic nerves (group A) or sciatic nerves which had been crushed 1 week before transplantation (group B, conditioned grafts) were used as grafts. The nerves were removed and sutured to the proximal stump of intraorbitally axotomized optic nerves. Neuronal survival and axon growth were determined by counting the numbers of surviving, DiI-prelabled RGCs, cresyl violet-stained RGCs and the numbers of axons which had grown into the grafts 3 and 6 months after transplantation. Counting of axons was performed by combined use of light and electron microscopy. We observed that the use of conditioned grafts (group B) significantly enhanced RGC survival and axonal regrowth as compared to normal grafts 3 months after transplantation. Six months after grafting, RGC survival (as determined in DiI-stained retinae) and axonal growth were not significantly different in both groups. These results suggest that the functional status of a peripheral nerve used for grafting in the CNS influences neuronal viability and axonal reelongation especially during the first 3 months after grafting. Very long-term RGC survival, however, may be determined by functional reconnection of regenerating RGC axons rather than by the graft itself.