The ability of NGF (2.5S subunit) to support the survival of adult rat retinal ganglion cells (RGCs) and optic nerve fibers after intracranial section of the optic nerve was investigated. NGF was injected intraocularly at a dose of 3 micrograms/injection every 2.3 d from the day of axotomy to analysis. Control animals received cytochrome c injections. The survival of RGCs was analyzed in whole-mounted retinas after either cresyl violet staining or labeling with HRP applied to the proximal stump of the optic nerve. Survival times were 5 and 7 weeks. Diameter distribution and number of myelinated optic nerve fibers were assessed in ultrathin cross sections of the optic nerve. We found that RGCs surviving axotomy were much more numerous following NGF treatment compared with controls. Large-size cells were, in particular, preserved by NGF treatment. The quantitative ultrastructural studies indicated that the number of myelinated optic nerve fibers at 5 and 7 weeks postaxotomy was significantly greater in the NGF group with respect to the cytochrome c group. In agreement with the results obtained at the level of the RGCs, large-diameter axons were, in particular, preserved. We conclude that NGF injected intraocularly is effective in promoting the survival of RGCs and optic nerve fibers at least for a period as long as 7 weeks after intracranial section of the optic nerve.