After transection of the optic nerve (ON) in adult rats, retinal ganglion cells (RGC) progressively degenerate until, after two months, a residual population of only about 5% of these cells survives. In this study, we investigated the effect of regeneration-associated factors from sciatic nerve (ScN), BDNF, and CNTF on the survival of adult rat RGC after intraorbital ON transection. Neurotrophic factors were injected into the vitreous body. Rats were allowed to survive 3, 5, or 7 weeks, and the remaining viable RGC were then labelled by retrograde staining with the carbocyanine dye, 4Di-10Asp, which was applied onto the proximal nerve stump in vivo. The animals were sacrificed 3 days later and RGC counted in retinal whole mounts. Due to progressive degeneration following nerve transection the number of surviving RGC decreased to about 10% of the initially labelled population after 3 weeks, to about 8% after 5 weeks, and to about 5% after 7 weeks. Survival of axotomized cells could be prolonged using either of the neurotrophic factors: after 3 weeks a 2-3-fold increase in the number of viable RGC could be obtained compared to uninjected controls and to those which received injection of buffer. The prolonged survival effect vanished after 5 and 7 weeks, and no additive effect could be seen when combining brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and ciliary neuronotrophic factor (CNTF) treatment. Morphometric analysis of labelled cells revealed that all neurotrophic factors supported predominantly large RGC with somal areas > 250 micron 2. In retinae from rats that survived the ON transection for several months, a characteristic population of axotomy-resistant RGC remained alive. Their few, very large, and often curled dendrites showed signs of placticity in the depleted inner nuclear layer of the adult rat retina. We conclude that the intraocular injection of CNTF, BDNF, and ScN-derived medium, which retard the process of lesion-induced RGC degeneration, may be successfully used as a subsidiary strategy in transplatation protocols. This would result in larger populations of RGC which can be recruited to regenerate their axons and provide a basis for functional recovery.