Janusin and tenascin are glia-derived, structurally related, extracellular matrix glycoproteins of the J1 family that are expressed in vivo at times and in locations where active neurite outgrowth occurs, but also when the formation or stabilization of cytoarchitectonic boundaries appears to be in operation. To resolve this apparent functional dichotomy, we have studied the behavioral response of growth cones, growing in culture on the permissive substrate laminin to janusin and tenascin, by video time lapse microscopy. When janusin and tenascin were offered as sharp substrate boundaries, dorsal root ganglion (DRG) and retinal ganglion neuron growth cones avoided growing on these molecules, but were not induced to collapse. On the other hand, when janusin and tenascin were offered, in a mixture with laminin, as uniform substrates, DRG growth cones displayed a collapsed morphology and were able to advance at a faster rate than on laminin alone. In contrast, the outgrowth of retinal ganglion neuron growth cones was completely inhibited under these conditions, underscoring a cell type specificity in the response of growth cones to these molecules. Using several monoclonal antibodies binding to distinct epitopes on the tenascin molecule, we have identified two domains responsible for growth cone repulsion, on epidermal growth factor (EGF)-like repeats 3-5 and fibronectin type III homologous repeats 4 and 5. These domains are different from the one previously recognized to be involved in neurite outgrowth on a uniform tenascin substrate. We conclude that both molecules may promote or retard growth cone advance, depending on the spatial expression pattern and the neuronal cell type.