We have conducted experiments in the adult rat visual system to assess the relative importance of an absence of trophic factors versus the presence of putative growth inhibitory molecules for the failure of regeneration of CNS axons after injury. The experiments comprised three groups of animals in which all optic nerves were crushed intra-orbitally: an optic nerve crush group had a sham implant-operation on the eye; the other two groups had peripheral nerve tissue introduced into the vitreous body; in an acellular peripheral nerve group, a frozen/thawed teased sciatic nerve segment was grafted, and in a cellular peripheral nerve group, a predegenerate teased segment of sciatic nerve was implanted. The rats were left for 20 days and their optic nerves and retinae prepared for immunohistochemical examination of both the reaction to injury of axons and glia in the nerve and also the viability of Schwann cells in the grafts. Anterograde axon tracing with rhodamine-B provided unequivocal qualitative evidence of regeneration in each group, and retrograde HRP tracing gave a measure of the numbers of axons growing across the lesion by counting HRP filled retinal ganglion cells in retinal whole mounts after HRP injection into the optic nerve distal to the lesion. No fibres crossed the lesion in the optic nerve crush group and dense scar tissue was formed in the wound site. GAP-43-positive and rhodamine-B filled axons in the acellular peripheral nerve and cellular peripheral nerve groups traversed the lesion and grew distally. There were greater numbers of regenerating fibres in the cellular peripheral nerve compared to the acellular peripheral nerve group. In the former, 0.6-10% of the retinal ganglion cell population regenerated axons at least 3-4 mm into the distal segment. In both the acellular peripheral nerve and cellular peripheral nerve groups, no basal lamina was deposited in the wound. Thus, although astrocyte processes were stacked around the lesion edge, a glia limitans was not formed. These observations suggest that regenerating fibres may interfere with scarring. Viable Schwann cells were found in the vitreal grafts in the cellular peripheral nerve group only, supporting the proposition that Schwann cell derived trophic molecules secreted into the vitreous stimulated retinal ganglion cell axon growth in the severed optic nerve. The regenerative response of acellular peripheral nerve-transplanted animals was probably promoted by residual amounts of these molecules present in the transplants after freezing and thawing. In the optic nerves of all groups the astrocyte, microglia and macrophage reactions were similar. Moreover, oligodendrocytes and myelin debris were also uniformly distributed throughout all nerves. Our results suggest either that none of the above elements inhibit CNS regeneration after perineuronal neurotrophin delivery, or that the latter, in addition to mobilising and maintaining regeneration, also down regulates the expression of axonal growth cone-located receptors, which normally mediate growth arrest by engaging putative growth inhibitory molecules of the CNS neuropil.