To better understand the role of insulin-related growth factors in neural development, we have characterized by in situ hybridization in chicken embryonic retina the patterns of gene expression for insulin, insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-I), their respective receptors and the IGF binding protein 5 (IGFBP5) from early stages (E6) until late stages (E18)--an analysis not performed yet in any species. In addition, we studied the effect of insulin and IGF-I on cultured neuroepithelial cells. Insulin receptor mRNA and IGF-I receptor mRNA were both present and showed a similar, widespread pattern throughout retina development. Insulin mRNA could be detected only by reverse transcription coupled to polymerase chain reaction. IGF-I mRNA was concentrated in the ciliary processes and extraocular muscles early in development (embryonic day 6; E6) and in maturing retinal ganglion cells subsequently (E9-15). IGFBP5 mRNA was preferentially localized in the more differentiated central retinal zone and was maximally concentrated in the inner nuclear and ganglion cell layers at E9. These findings suggest a near constitutive expression of insulin receptor and IGF-I receptor genes, while IGF-I and IGFBP5 showed a highly focal spatiotemporal regulation of gene expression. Insulin and IGF-I, already at 10(-8) M, increased the proportion of PM1-positive neuroepithelial cells found in E5 retinal cultures without affecting significantly the total number of proliferating cells. Together, these data support the finding that, during early neurogenesis in chicken retina, insulin and IGF-I have a specific paracrine/autocrine action. This action, as well as possible effects elicited subsequently, may be dictated by restricted-local synthesis of the ligands and limited access to the factors contained in the vitreous humour. In the case of IGF's role, local IGFBPs expression can contribute to the fine modulation.