Prior studies indicate that neonatal nerve injury kills many trigeminal (V) first- and second-order cells, and interrupts pattern formation in the brainstem and cerebral cortex. Yet it is not known whether effects upon cell survival and pattern formation are causally related. To determine whether axotomized V ganglion cells can be rescued by an exogenous trophic agent, rats received 5 mg/kg of nerve growth factor (NGF) prior to, and every day after, infraorbital nerve section on the day of birth until sacrifice on postnatal day (PND) 1, 3, 5, 7, or 14. Other animals received identical lesions without NGF. Ganglion cell numbers were significantly reduced by PND1 in pups not given NGF, while NGF-treated rats displayed no significant cell loss through PND7. However, NGF did not permanently rescue V neurons because ganglion cell numbers were reliably reduced by PND14. Cell numbers in V nucleus principalis were reduced by PND1 in pups not given NGF, while NGF-treated animals displayed no cell loss through PND14. NGF's rescue of second-order cells is probably an indirect effect of NGF action upon V ganglion cells because, in other newborns, NGF failed to maintain principalis cells after direct lesion of the left V ganglion. To determine whether preventing cell death permits whisker-related pattern formation, other rats also received NGF prior to and after infraorbital nerve section at birth. After 3-14 days, patterns were assessed in the brainstem and cortex with cytochrome oxidase histochemistry and serotonin immunocytochemistry. Whisker-related patterns failed to develop as in cases not given NGF. These data indicate that communication with the periphery is necessary for the maintenance of central whisker-related patterns. They also suggest that V ganglion cells can be rescued, albeit temporarily, from rapid injury-induced death by NGF, thereby delaying injury-induced cell death in nucleus principalis. However, the mechanism(s) responsible for injury-induced pattern alterations in the developing V system remains to be elucidated.