The extracellular matrix protein tenascin-C has been implicated in the regulation of axonal growth. Using unilateral entorhinal cortex lesions, which induce a massive sprouting response in the denervated outer molecular layer of the rat fascia dentata, the role of tenascin-C for axonal growth was investigated in vivo. Monoclonal antibodies against the neurite outgrowth and anti-adhesive domains of the molecule were employed. Immunostaining was increased throughout the denervated outer molecular layer by day 2, reached a maximum around day 10, and was back to control levels by four weeks post lesion. Growth cone deflecting as well as neurite outgrowth promoting isoforms of tenascin-C were up-regulated after the lesion. Using electron microscopy, single intensely tenascin-C immunoreactive cells were identified as reactive astrocytes that phagocytose degenerated terminals. In situ hybridization histochemistry for tenascin-C messenger RNA revealed numerous cellular profiles in the denervated outer molecular layer of the ipsilateral and contralateral dentate gyrus two days post lesion. Tenascin-C messenger RNA-positive cells in the outer molecular layer were identified as astrocytes using double-labelling for tenascin-C messenger RNA and glial fibrillary acidic protein immunohistochemistry. Thus, a tenascin-C-rich substrate is present in the outer molecular layer during the time of sprouting and a sharp boundary is formed against the inner molecular layer. This pattern may contribute to the layer-specific sprouting response of surviving afferents after entorhinal lesion. Neurite outgrowth may be promoted within the denervated zone, whereas axons trying to grow into the denervated outer molecular layer, for example from the inner molecular layer, would be deflected by a tenascin-C-rich barrier.