The search for specific neurotrophic factors that will eventually be used to reduce or arrest the rate of degeneration of dopaminergic neurons in Parkinson's disease is being pursued by first testing the ability of putative compounds to increase the survival of dopaminergic neurons in primary cultures of the fetal, ventral mesencephalon. This research has intensified in recent years. The experimental procedures used by different laboratories in these studies differ widely, and meaningful comparisons of the results obtained are accordingly difficult to make. Some important experimental variables include the age of the fetal tissue used; the dissection technique used to isolate the ventral mesencephalon; the percentage of dopaminergic neurons present in the culture initially; handling of the tissue during dissection; the technique used to disperse the cells; the use of serum; the technique of plating the cells; the attachment factors used; detachment and loss of cells during the staining procedure; the age of the cultures at the time of analysis; the uneven distribution of cells at the time of analysis and the use of imaging techniques in the analysis. We show that when the E14 rat embryo is used, it is possible to consistently obtain a culture with 20% of tyrosine hydroxylase-positive neurons. Neither the plating density in the range of 7.8 x 10(3) to 1.25 x 10(5) cells/cm2, nor the percentage of serum in the growth medium affected the percentage of cells that expressed TH initially, at 4 or 12 h after plating. When the cells were plated as 25 microliters droplets, called microislands (area approximately 12.5 mm2), and allowed to attach before additional growth medium was added, cell density remained uniform at the center of the microisland for the duration of the culture. Restriction of the analysis of cell survival to the center of the microisland therefore helped to decrease the variability in counting that could occur when cells are dispersed over a larger area. In contrast, in an 8-well chamber slide or 35 mm petri dish, in which the whole area is plated, cell density was consistently higher at the edge (edge effect), versus the centre, by a factor of about three. The use of microisland cultures also has the additional benefit of increasing by a factor of about five the number of individual cultures that can be set up per liter, and a proportionate reduction in the number of animals used per experiment. When the percentage of serum in the growth medium was 0% always, or 10% for the first 12 h, and 0% thereafter, or 10% always, the number of TH-pos neurons per field (using a x 20 objective, column factor 1.25; area 320 microns2) after 5 days in culture (DIV5) was < 1,3-8 and 14-22, respectively. Under the same experimental conditions, the number of neurons (MAP2-positive) per field was 5-8, 18-30 and 45-65 (N = 10 in all cases), respectively. Serum deprivation therefore has a highly deleterious effect on neuronal survival in culture. We suggest that cultures that were exposed to serum at any stage of the experiment, should not be referred to as "serum-free', since even a brief exposure to serum exerts a protective effect on neurons, and especially on dopaminergic neurons. Instead, the percentage and kind of serum used, the exact usage, and the duration of exposure of the cells to serum should be stated. Finally, it is suggested that where possible, an imaging system with manual count and journaling capabilities be used in the analysis. The methods described are illustrated by dose-response curves of the neurotrophic effects of BDNF, NGF-beta and IL-6 versus percentage survival on dopaminergic neurons, when grown in serum-free medium throughout.