The failure of mature mammalian central nervous system axons to regenerate after transection is usually attributed to influences of the extraneuronal milieu. Using explant cocultures of retina and midbrain tectum from hamsters, we have found evidence that these influences account for failure of regrowth of only a small minority of retinal axons. For most of the axons, there is a programmed loss of ability to elongate in the central nervous system. We show that there is a precipitous decline in the ability of retinal axons to reinnervate tectal targets when the retina is derived from pups on or after postnatal day 2, even when the target is embryonic. By contrast, embryonic retinal axons can regrow into tectum of any age, overcoming growth-inhibiting influences of glial factors.