Activity-dependent neurotrophic factor (ADNF) is a glia-derived protein that is neuroprotective at femtomolar concentrations. ADNF is released from astroglia after treatment with 0.1 nM vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP). To further assess the biological role of ADNF, antiserum was produced following sequential injections of purified ADNF into mice. Anti-ADNF ascites fluid (1:10,000) decreased neuronal survival by 45-55% in comparison to untreated cultures or those treated with control ascites. The neuronal death after anti-ADNF treatment was observed in cultures derived from the spinal cord, hippocampus or cerebral cortex at similar IC50's. Using a terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase in situ assay to estimate apoptosis in cerebral cortical cultures, anti-ADNF was shown to produce a 70% increase in the number of labeled cells in comparison to controls. In spinal cord cultures, anti-ADNF treatment produced a 20% decrease in choline acetyltransferase activity in comparison to controls. Neuronal cell death produced by the antiserum to ADNF was prevented in cultures co-treated with purified ADNF or ADNF-15, an active peptide derived from the parent ADNF. In vitro binding between the anti-ADNF and ADNF-15 was demonstrated with size exclusion chromatography. Comparative studies with other growth factors (insulin-like growth factor-1, platelet-derived growth factor, nerve growth factor, epidermal growth factor, ciliary neurotrophic growth factor, and neurotrophin-3) demonstrated that only ADNF prevented neuronal cell death associated with electrical blockade. These investigations indicated that an ADNF-like substance was present in cultures derived from multiple locations in the central nervous system and that ADNF-15 exhibited both neuroprotection and immunogenicity. ADNF appears to be both a regulator of activity-dependent neuronal survival and a neuroprotectant.