It has been demonstrated that cultured cholinergic retinal neurons from 8-day-old chicken embryos respond to a polypeptide factor present in retinal cell-conditioned medium (RCM) and in retinal extracts. Compared with control cultures, the activity of acetyl-CoA:choline O-acetyltransferase (EC 126.96.36.199; ChAT) is enhanced more than twofold in neuronal retinal cultures grown for 7 days in the presence of RCM. The present study demonstrates that both ciliary neuronotrophic factor (CNTF), which is characterized by its trophic activity on parasympathetic ciliary neurons, and RCM exhibit identical stimulatory effects on ChAT activity in retinal monolayer cultures. Similarly, RCM supports the in vitro survival of ciliary neurons to the same extent as CNTF. The active species in RCM has a molecular weight (20,900 +/- 1,000) identical to that of CNTF, as determined by preparative sodium dodecyl sulfate gel electrophoresis. The results indicate that cholinergic retinal neurons represent a central neuronal target for CNTF or a closely related protein.