Ciliary neurotrophic factor (CNTF) is expressed in high quantities in Schwann cells of peripheral nerves during postnatal development of the rat. The absence of a hydrophobic leader sequence and the immunohistochemical localization of CNTF within the cytoplasm of these cells indicate that the factor might not be available to responsive neurons under physiological conditions. However, CNTF supports the survival of a variety of embryonic neurons, including spinal motoneurons in culture. Moreover we have recently demonstrated that the exogenous application of CNTF protein to the lesioned facial nerve of the newborn rat rescued these motoneurons from cell death. These results indicate that CNTF might indeed play a major role in assisting the survival of lesioned neurons in the adult peripheral nervous system. Here we demonstrate that the CNTF mRNA and protein levels and the manner in which they are regulated are compatible with such a function in lesioned peripheral neurons. In particular, immunohistochemical analysis showed significant quantities of CNTF at extracellular sites after sciatic nerve lesion. Western blots and determination of CNTF biological activity of the same nerve segments indicate that extracellular CNTF seems to be biologically active. After nerve lesion CNTF mRNA levels were reduced to less than 5% in distal regions of the sciatic nerve whereas CNTF bioactivity decreased to only one third of the original before-lesion levels. A gradual reincrease in Schwann cells occurred concomitant with regeneration.