Substantial dysfunction and loss of cholinergic neurons occur in Alzheimer's disease (AD). Nerve growth factor (NGF) is a potent neurotrophic factor for cholinergic basal forebrain neurons, and the use of NGF to stimulate residual dysfunctional cells in AD is being considered. To define the effects of NGF on other cell populations in the brain, NGF was continuously infused into the lateral ventricle of rats for 7 weeks. At the end of treatment, Schwann cell hyperplasia and abundant sensory and sympathetic neurite sprouting were observed in the subpial region of the medulla oblongata and the spinal cord. Following withdrawal of NGF, the Schwann cell hyperplasia and sprouting of sensory and sympathetic neurites disappeared completely. These findings suggest that better temporal and spatial delivery systems for NGF must be explored to limit potential undesirable side effects while maintaining the survival and function of diseased basal forebrain cholinergic neurons.