The possibility that brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and insulin like growth factor-1 (IGF) induced neuroprotection is influenced by mechanisms involving nitric oxide was examined in a rat model of focal spinal cord injury. BDNF or IGF-I (0.1 microgram/10 microliters in phosphate buffer saline) was applied topically 30 min before injury on the exposed spinal cord followed by repeated doses of growth factors immediately before and 30 min after injury. Thereafter application of BDNF or IGF was carried out at every 1 h interval until sacrifice. Five hours after injury, the tissue pieces from the T9 segment were processed for nNOS immunostaining, edema and cell injury. Untreated injured rats showed a profound upregulation of nNOS which was most pronounced in the nerve cells of the ipsilateral side. A marked increase in the blood-spinal cord barrier (BSCB) permeability to 125I-albumin, water content and cell injury in these perifocal segments was also found. Pretreatment with BDNF and IGF significantly reduced the upregulation of nNOS in the spinal cord. This effect of the growth factors was most pronounced in the contralateral side. Rats treated with these neurotrophic factors showed much less signs of BSCB damage, edema and cell injury. These results suggest that BDNF and IGF pretreatment is neuroprotective in spinal cord injury and that these neurotrophic factors have the capacity to down regulate nNOS expression following trauma to the spinal cord. Our data provide new experimental evidences which suggest that BDNF and IGF may exert their potential neuroprotective effects probably via regulation of NOS activity.