The impaired wound healing associated with aging may reflect inadequate secretion or delivery of cytokines. Transforming growth factor-β1 is a mitogenic polypeptide with beneficial effects on wound healing. In the present study we questioned whether topical administration of transforming growth factor-β1 could improve the wound healing process in aged rats in vivo. Wound repair (from 1 to 14 days) was analyzed in full-thickness incisional wounds from 2-year-old rats with or without a single topical application of transforming growth factor-β1 (1 µg/wound) at the time of wounding. Identical wounds from 3-month-old, untreated rats served as controls. Histologic analysis showed a marked delay in several aspects of wound repair in the aged rats in comparison with that noted in the younger animals. Immunostaining of the wounds for proliferating cell nuclear antigen showed a reduction in the number of cycling fibroblasts in old rats. In addition, the number of capillaries per unit area of the wound as determined by a stain for Griffonin (Bandeiraea) simplicifolia lectin, and the number of inflammatory cells as identified by an antibody specific for macrophages, were also reduced in the wound area in old rats. Treatment with transforming growth factor-β1 resulted in marked enhancement of the following parameters: cell proliferation, inflammatory cell and fibroblast influx, wound closure, and angiogenesis. As seen with in situ hybridization, a similar temporal pattern of expression of messenger RNAs corresponding to type I procollagen and Secreted Protein, Acidic and Rich in Cysteine (osteonectin), known to be prevalent in healing wounds, was observed in both young and aged rats. However, the levels of mRNA corresponding to these secreted proteins appeared to be reduced in wound tissue from aged rats. Treatment with transforming growth factor-β1 subsequently resulted in an increase in the expression of both type I procollagen and Secreted Protein, Acidic and Rich in Cysteine mRNA in the wound tissue from aged rats. In summary, a single topical application of transforming growth factor-β1 to the wounds of aged rats at the time of wounding was associated with a healing response that, in all the parameters of wound repair examined, was similar to that of young rats. Topical transforming growth factor-β1 might therefore be beneficial in the treatment of dermal wounds in the aged.