Transforming growth factors beta (TGF-beta), a family of pleiotropic cytokines, are widely distributed in the developing and adult nervous system. In order to further determine the neural functions of TGF-beta, we have localized the TGF-beta isoforms 1, 2 and 3 in the adult rat adrenal medulla and studied the neuroprotective capacity of one representative family member, TGF-beta 2, for those spinal cord neurons which innervate adrenal chromaffin cells and which die after destruction of the adrenal medulla. Unilateral electrothermal destruction of the adrenal medulla led to the disappearance of 25% of sympathetic preganglionic neurons, which are located in the intermediolateral (IML) column of thoracic spinal cord segments 7-10 and can be selectively marked by NADPH-diaphorase. The neurons which disappeared following adrenomedullectomy constitute the full set of neurons that innervate the adrenal medulla. Implantation of gelfoam soaked with 0.5 micrograms TGF-beta 2 into the adrenal wound cavity rescued all spinal cord neurons in the IML ipsilaterally to the lesioned side. Cytochrome c was not effective. Injections of [125I]TGF-beta 2 into the adrenal medulla did not result in retrograde transport and subsequent labelling of spinal cord neurons, suggesting that TGF-beta may exert its neuroprotective actions by indirect mechanisms. TGF-beta applied to cultured adrenocortical cells did not overtly increase the amount of mRNA for fibroblast growth factor-2, an established trophic molecule for sympathetic preganglionic spinal cord neurons. The mechanisms by which TGF-beta exerts its neurotrophic effect are therefore unclear. Even so, our data provide the first evidence that TGF-beta may play an important role in vivo in the control of maintenance of a population of spinal cord neurons.