The infiltration of bone marrow-derived macrophages into the CNS contributes to growth and reactions of microglia during development or after brain injury. The proliferation of microglial cells is stimulated by colony-stimulating factor 1 (CSF-1), an astrocyte-produced growth factor that acts on mononuclear phagocytes. In the present study, we have shown, using an in vitro model system, that rodent neurons obtained from the developing cerebral cortex produce a soluble factor that strongly enhances the proliferation of macrophages cultured in the presence of CSF-1. Both macrophages isolated from the developing brain and those from the adult bone marrow were stimulated. Kinetic analyses of [3H]thymidine incorporation into macrophages indicated that their response to the neuron-derived factor involved a shortening of the cycle of proliferating cells. The effect of neurons on macrophages was blocked in the presence of antibodies neutralizing transforming growth factor-beta2 (TGF-beta2), whereas recombinant TGF-beta2 stimulated macrophage proliferation in the presence of CSF-1. Neuronal secretion of TGF-beta2 was confirmed by reverse transcription-PCR detection of TGF-beta2 transcripts and immunodetection of the protein within neurons and in their culture medium. In situ hybridization and immunohistochemical experiments showed neuronal expression of TGF-beta2 in sections of cerebral cortex obtained from 6-d-old rats, an age at which extensive developmental recruitment of macrophages occurs in this cerebral region. Altogether, our results provide direct evidence that neurons have the capacity to promote brain macrophage proliferation and demonstrate the role of TGF-beta2 in this neuronal function.