Traumatic brain injury in animals and humans is well known to cause axonal damage diffusely scattered throughout the brain without evidence of other brain parenchymal change. This observation has prompted some to posit that such damaged axons are well positioned to mount a regenerative attempt. The present study uses an immunocytochemical marker specific for regenerating neurites to explore this issue. Further, in an attempt to expedite and enhance any potential regenerative effort, this study evaluates the efficacy of intrathecally applied nerve growth factor. Three sets of experiments were performed in adult cats. One group of animals was subjected to moderate fluid percussion brain injury and followed for 7 or 14 days post injury, with the continuous intraventricular infusion of nerve growth factor delivered by implanted osmotic pumps. These animals were compared to a second group of time-matched, sham-operated animals receiving artificial cerebrospinal fluid infusion. To assess axonal damage immunohistochemical staining for the low molecular weight neurofilament subunit (NF-L) was carried out using an NR4 monoclonal antibody. To localize axons exhibiting a regenerative response immunohistochemical staining for the growth associated protein GAP43 was employed. In sham controls, at the light microscopic level NF-L-immunoreactive axonal swellings were numerous at 7 days, but by 14 days post injury their frequency declined markedly. In contrast, GAP43-immunoreactive, disconnected reactive axonal swellings were rarely observed at 7 days but were numerous at 14 days. Ultrastructural analysis at 14 days post injury of carefully matched sections revealed reactive axons demonstrating sprouting consistent with a regenerative effort. Analysis of tissue from animals of 14 days of survival indicated that supplementation with nerve growth factor did not appear to enhance the capacity of damaged brain axons to mount a regenerative attempt. Rather, it appears that regenerative efforts seen reflect a spontaneous response. A third group of adult cats, subjected to the same injury but not subjected to osmotic pump implantation, was allowed to survive for 22-28 days. Animals in this group also demonstrated GAP43 immunoreactivity in reactive axonal swellings in the brain stem. This study demonstrates that diffusely injured axons can mount a sustained regenerative attempt that is associated with a reorganization of their cytoskeleton and accompanied by an up-regulation of growth-associated proteins.