J1–160 and J1–180 are developmentally late appearing J1 extracellular matrix glycoproteins derived from oligodendrocytes. They prevent adhesion of neurons (but not of astrocytes or fibroblasts) when offered as a substrate in mixture with laminin (Pesheva et al., J. Cell Biol., 109, 1765–1778, 1989). In the present study we have examined the influence of divalent cations on the inhibitory substrate properties of J1-160/180 glycoproteins towards adhesion of neurons. By metal chelate affinity chromatography, we show that J1-180, but not J1-160, binds Ca2+, while both J1 components are capable of binding Zn2+ and other divalent metal ions. Divalent cation binding was observed by gel filtration, aggregation assays with coated latex beads and electron microscopic examination to elicit aggregation of the molecules. Divalent cation binding also affects their non-permissive substrate properties towards neurons from early postnatal mouse cerebellum. Without divalent cations, J1–160 and J1–180 are inhibitory for substrate adhesion of neurons independently of the adhesive substrate present (laminin or poly-l-lysine). This effect is neutralized when J1–180 is preincubated with Ca2+ or Zn2+ prior to coating as substrate. In contrast, preincubation with Ca2+ ions does not affect the inhibitory substrate properties of J1–160 under these conditions. These observations show that J1-160/180 molecules may undergo self-aggregation in a divalent cation-dependent mechanism, which correlates with the neutralization of their inhibitory effect on neuronal adhesion. The aggregation state of the molecules may thus influence the process of myelination by a homophilic binding mechanism and determine the effectiveness of neurite extension during central nervous system development and under traumatic conditions in the adult.