VGF is a developmentally regulated, secretory peptide precursor that is expressed by neurons and neuroendocrine cells and that has its transcription and secretion induced rapidly by neurotrophins and by depolarization. To gain insight into the possible functions and regulation of VGF in vivo, we have characterized the distribution of VGF mRNA in the developing rat nervous system. VGF expression was first detectable at embryonic day 11.5 in the primordia of cranial, sympathetic, and dorsal root ganglia, and its distribution expanded throughout development to include significant expression throughout the brain, spinal cord, and retina of the adult rat. The earliest expression of VGF, therefore, appeared in the peripheral nervous system as developing neurons settled in their designated ganglia. In many regions of the brain, VGF mRNA levels were found to be highest during periods when axonal outgrowth and synaptogenesis predominate. Areas of the central nervous system that contain predominantly dividing cells never displayed any VGF mRNA expression, nor did the vast majority of nonneural tissues.