Ciliary neurotrophic factor (CNTF) was first identified and partially purified from embryonic chick eye tissues. Subsequently, it was shown that CNTF is also present in large amounts in sciatic nerves of adult rats and rabbits, which led to its final purification and cloning. CNTF is not secreted by the classical secretory pathway involving the endoplasmatic reticulum and Golgi complex, but can be detected in high quantities within the cytoplasm of myelinating Schwann cells and astrocytes using immunohistochemistry. CNTF supports survival and/or differentiation of a variety of neuronal cell types including sensory, sympathetic, and motoneurons. Also, nonneuronal cells, such as oligodendrocytes, microglial cells, liver cells, and skeletal muscle cells, respond to exogenously administered CNTF, both in vitro and in vivo. During development, expression of CNTF is very low, if indeed it is expressed at all, and the phenotype of mice lacking endogenous CNTF after inactivation of the CNTF gene by homologous recombination suggests that CNTF does not play a crucial role for responsive cells during embryonic development. However, motoneurons are lost postnatally in mice lacking endogenous CNTF, suggesting that CNTF acts physiologically on the maintenance of these cells. The ability of exogenous CNTF to protect against motoneuron loss following lesion or in other animal models indicates that CNTF might be useful in the treatment of human motoneuron disorders, provided appropriate means of administration can be found.