Retinal ganglion cell (RGC) survival and neurite outgrowth were investigated in retinal explants from adult rats. Neurotrophin-4/5 (NT-4/5) caused dose-dependent increases in neurite outgrowth with one-half maximal effects at approximately 0.5 ng/ml and maximal effects at 5 ng/ml. In explants treated for 7 days, the actions of NT-4/5 were similar to those of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF); with either neurotrophin, nearly twice as many RGCs survived and there was a two- to threefold increase in the number of neurites formed by RGCs. Combinations of saturating concentrations of NT-4/5 and BDNF did not enhance these in vitro effects, implying that both neurotrophins share a common signaling pathway. In contrast, nerve growth factor (NGF), neurotrophin-3 (NT-3), or ciliary neurotrophic factor (CNTF) appeared to exert minimal influences on RGC survival or neurite outgrowth.