Nerve growth factor (NGF), a member of the neurotrophin family, is an essential mediator of neuronal activity and synaptic plasticity of basal forebrain cholinergic neurons. In this study NGF-protein levels were determined in areas of the basal forebrain cholinergic system, its projection areas as well as the striatum and the cerebellum after long-term exposure (6 and 9 months) to ethanol and a phase of withdrawal in male Sprague-Dawley rats. 6-month alcohol treatment led to an increase of NGF to 650-850% of controls in the basal forebrain and the septum and to a 210-485% increase in the cholinergic projection areas (anterior cortex, hippocampus and olfactory bulb). After 9 months exposure to ethanol, a decrease of NGF by 16% in the frontal cortex was observed compared to controls. In the other brain regions no differences in NGF expression were detectable at this time-point. These results support the idea of an endogenous neuroprotective mechanism acting through a transient NGF induction followed by a decrease in NGF-levels during the course of further neuronal degeneration.