Primary olfactory neurons located in the olfactory neuroepithelium project to the ipsilateral olfactory bulb and undergo a continuous process of neurogenesis and differentiation. We describe, in the adult rat, the kinetics of proliferation, differentiation and survival of primary olfactory neurons either in the presence or absence of their target, the olfactory bulb. The experimental design included unilateral bulbectomy, coupled with a single bromodeoxyuridine pulse 35 days after surgery. The rate of proliferation and survival of olfactory neurons was then examined by immunohistochemistry for bromodeoxyuridine, and the differentiation status by in situ hybridization for calmodulin messenger RNA in immature and mature olfactory neurons and immunohistochemistry for the dipeptide carnosine in mature olfactory neurons. We show that primary olfactory neurons can synthesize carnosine in the absence of the olfactory bulb. However, the number of carnosine-immunopositive neurons in the absence of their target is dramatically reduced to less than one-fourth, whereas the number of olfactory neurons expressing calmodulin messenger RNA is only slightly reduced. The numeric reduction of camosine-positive neurons in the target-deprived neuroepithelium is correlated with a dramatic reduction in the survival rate of olfactory neurons, since newly generated olfactory neurons are completely lost 35 days after the bromodeoxyuridine pulse. In contrast, in the normal olfactory neuroepithelium almost one-third of newly generated olfactory neurons survive 35 days after the bromodeoxyuridine pulse. On the whole, these data indicate that most of the primary olfactory neurons have a short lifespan but that once they have connected with the olfactory bulb they may persist longer, and suggest that throughout adulthood olfactory neurons are overproduced, differentiate independently from their target, and then undergo a process of target-induced neuronal selection.