Although a variety of in vitro and in vivo actions of basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF) on neuronal cells have been documented, the physiological role of this protein in the nervous system is still contested. Since the distribution of a molecule in the nervous system may provide cues for an understanding of its possible roles, we have begun to study its cellular localization in the central and peripheral nervous system using immunocytochemistry with an anti-bFGF-specific antibody. Here we provide an account on the distribution of bFGF-like immunoreactivity (bFGF-IR) in the brainstem of the developing and adult rat. Basic FGF-IR was found to be widely distributed in motor and sensory nuclei. In all nuclei examined, only subpopulations of neurons were stained. Different staining patterns were found. For example, in the red nucleus weakly or unstained perikarya were surrounded by numerous immunoreactive fibers, often in close contact with the neuronal surface. In the reticular formation and facial nerve, many neuronal cell bodies showed a strong IR that extended into the processes. Glial cells were consistently unstained. During early postnatal development changes of the distribution of bFGF IR were found. From this wide distribution pattern of bFGF-IR, we conclude that bFGF may have more general and, possibly, diverse functions rather than a restricted role for a particular subset of neurons. Variations in the staining pattern of nerve cell bodies in a single nucleus may suggest a function related to neuronal activity.