After intraorbital transection of the optic nerve of adult rats, 90% of the retinal ganglion cells die within 30 days. Since fetal brain extracts and cocultured fetal target regions support the survival of retinal ganglion cells in vitro (Nurcombe and Bennett: Exp. Brain Res. 44: 249-258, '81; McCaffery et al.: Exp. Brain Res. 48: 377-386, '82; Armson and Bennett: Neurosci. Lett. 38: 181-186, '83) we investigated whether cell death in the adult retina could be prevented by transplanting fetal (E16) thalamus and tectum to the proximal stump of the optic nerve of adult rats that was completely transected 2-3 mm behind the optic disc. Unoperated eyes contained 119,973 (+/- 939, SEM) retinal ganglion cells, estimated from axon counts of the intact optic nerve. Of these, 11,601 (+/- 1,857) remained in control operated eyes at 30 days postoperation while in the eyes of grafted rats, 35,086 (+/- 2,278) retinal ganglion cells were counted. Thus, 23,485 (= 22% of those normally dying after transection of the optic nerve) ganglion cells were rescued by the fetal grafts from cell death normally following axotomy. These results indicate that fetal target regions of retinal ganglion cells contain and/or produce neurotrophic molecules that promote the survival of adult axotomized retinal ganglion cells.