Schwann cells in the intact sciatic nerve express high amounts of ciliary neurotrophic factor (CNTF), but 7 days after injury to the nerve expression dramatically decreases. To determine whether this change occurs only in the region of the injury or throughout the whole nerve we examined the spatial and temporal expression of CNTF after a crush injury. One day after injury the amount of CNTF mRNA and protein decreased within the first 4 mm distal to the crush site. This decrease progressed in a centrifugal manner distally until mRNA and protein were scarcely detectable by 7 days. In nerve proximal to the crush site CNTF expression decreased slightly and was still detectable at all sample times. During regeneration CNTF expression remained very low up to 14 days after injury. By 30 days mRNA and protein were detectable and by 60 days CNTF protein was present at normal amounts. Immunohistochemical analysis of normal nerve revealed CNTF localized in outer portion of the cytoplasm of myelin-forming Schwann cells. Three days after injury CNTF coalesced with pockets of cytoplasm in the Schwann cell and by 5 days was barely detectable. Positive staining remained in proximal segments where little or no degeneration occurred. These results demonstrate that CNTF expression in Schwann cells is synchronized with their functional state. CNTF expression decreases with demyelination during Wallerian degeneration and returns to normal following remyelination during regeneration. These findings also suggest that CNTF expression requires intact axon-Schwann cell interactions.