Migrating Schwann cells in developing or regenerating peripheral nerves are known to express dramatically increased levels of nerve growth factor (NGF) and the low-affinity NGF receptor (LNGFR). Schwann cells do not express detectable pp140trk, the NGF-activated receptor tyrosine kinase which is essential for neuronal responses to NGF. The temporal correlation observed in Schwann cells between migration and the enhanced expression of NGF and LNGFR suggests that NGF and LNGFR may promote Schwann cell migration. To test this possibility, we examined the effects of NGF on Schwann cell migration on cryostat sections of biologically relevant NGF-poor and NGF-rich substrates--normal or denervated peripheral (sciatic) nerve, untreated or pretreated with NGF. Results show that Schwann cells migrate more rapidly on denervated than on normal sciatic nerve. Antibodies to NGF or to LNGFR strongly, but incompletely, inhibit enhanced migration on denervated nerves. Pretreatment of denervated nerve sections with NGF increases further the rate of Schwann cell migration. The same antibodies to NGF or to LNGFR abolish this response. These results suggest that one function of the elevated levels of NGF known to be present in embryonic and regenerating peripheral nerves is to promote the migration of Schwann cells. In contrast to neurons, where pp140trk appears to be the functionally critical NGF receptor, NGF responses in Schwann cells depend on LNGFR.