Axon growth-promoting and -inhibitory molecules are likely to work in concert to promote and guide axons in vivo. In adult mammals, inhibitory molecules associated with myelin in the white matter of the central nervous system (CNS) play an important role in the failure of long-distance axon regeneration. The presence of neurite growth-inhibitory molecules in the adult rat gray matter has not been extensively studied. In this article we describe work on the characterization of neurite growth-inhibitory activity in the adult rat cerebral cortical gray matter using various biochemical and cell culture approaches. We show using a neuronal cell line (NG108-15 cells) that neurite growth-inhibitory activity is present in membrane preparations of the cortical gray matter. Purified gray matter membranes also induce growth cone collapse of cultured embryonic rat dorsal root ganglion neurons. The inhibitory activity in the membrane preparations is extractable with 3-[(3-cholamidoprophyl)-dimethylammonio]-1-propane-sulfonate, but does not appear to be depleted by various lectins. Western blots and enzyme treatments showed that the inhibitory effect of the gray-matter preparations is not likely to be mediated by myelin-associated inhibitors or chondroitin sulfate proteoglycans. However, tenascin was detected in these samples and may contribute to some of the inhibitory activity. Selective separation of the inhibitory molecules can be achieved by ion-exchange chromatography, which also suggests the presence of multiple inhibitors in cortical gray matter membranes.