The ability of immature neurons from chick lumbosacral sympathetic ganglia to proliferate in vitro was used to identify factors that affect neurogenesis. Under serum-free culture conditions, insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-I), IGF-II, or insulin caused an increase in the proportion of cells that incorporated [3H]thymidine. In addition, IGFs also stimulated neurite outgrowth from these immature sympathetic neurons. IGF-I and IGF-II mRNA was found to be expressed in E7 sympathetic ganglia during the period of neurogenesis. IGF-I was detectable in fibroblasts, whereas IGF-II mRNA was expressed by neurons, glia, and fibroblasts. Elimination of endogenous IGFs by neutralizing antibodies resulted in a reduction of neuron proliferation and neuron number, whereas elevation of IGF levels by treatment with IGF-I increased sympathetic neuron proliferation in vivo. These findings suggest an important role of IGFs for the development of sympathetic neurons and imply a general role of IGFs in the control of neurogenesis and neurite outgrowth.