Here we studied whether glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF), given as a single bolus injection before an intrastriatal 6-hydroxydopamine (6-OHDA) lesion, can protect the nigrostriatal dopamine neurons against the toxin-induced damage and preserve normal motor functions in the lesioned animals. GDNF or vehicle was injected in the striatum (25 μg), substantia nigra (25 μg) or lateral ventricle (50 μg) 6 h before the 6-OHDA lesion (20 μg/3 μL). Motor function was evaluated by the stepping and drug-induced motor asymmetry tests. Lesioned animals given vehicle alone showed a clear ipsilateral-side bias in response to amphetamine (13 turns/min), a moderate contralateral-side bias to apomorphine (4.5 turns/min) and a moderate to severe stepping deficit on the contralateral forepaw (three to four steps, as compared with 11–13 steps on the unimpaired side). Injection of GDNF into the striatum had a significant protective effect both on nigrostriatal function (1–2 turns/min in the rotation tests and seven to eight steps in the stepping test), and the integrity of the nigrostriatal pathway, seen as a protection of both the cell bodies in the substantia nigra and the dopamine innervation in the striatum. Injection of GDNF in the nigra had a protective effect on the nigral cell bodies, but not the striatal innervation, and failed to provide any functional benefit. In contrast, intranigral GDNF had deleterious effects on both the striatal TH-positive fibre density and on drug-induced rotation tests. Intraventricular injection had no effect. We conclude that preservation of normal motor functions in the intrastriatal 6-OHDA lesion model requires protection of striatal terminal innervation, and that this can be achieved by intrastriatal, but not nigral or intraventricular, administration of GDNF.