Ciliary neurotrophic factor (CNTF) is a pleiotropic molecule that acts as a neurotrophic factor for a wide range of embryonic neurons as well as a differentiation factor for sympathetic neuroblasts and O2A progenitor cells in culture. CNTF messenger RNA (mRNA) is present at very low levels in the normal adult rat central nervous system (CNS), but is dramatically up-regulated after an aspiration lesion of dorsal hippocampus and overlying cortex, in the area coincident with glial scar. The increased level of CNTF mRNA in lesioned hippocampus is maximal by 3 days and is sustained for up to 20 days, the longest time point examined. In contrast, mRNA levels for brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and neurotrophin-3 (NT-3) were slightly decreased during the same period. In situ hybridization experiments revealed that cells expressing CNTF mRNA were concentrated at the margin of the wound, and also present within the gelfoam which filled the lesion cavity. This distribution of CNTF-expressing cells corresponded very closely to that of cells expressing high levels of glial fibrillary acidic protein mRNA at the wound site. Paralleling the observed increase in CNTF mRNA, increased levels of CNTF-like neurotrophic activity were apparent in soluble extracts of the lesioned tissues. This neurotrophic activity for ciliary ganglion neurons was completely blocked by the addition of neutralizing antiserum against CNTF. Basic fibroblast growth factor, which has been shown by others to increase after a similar lesion paradigm (Frautschy et al., Brain Res., 553, 291–299, 1991), does not contribute appreciably to this trophic activity. We conclude that CNTF is markedly increased as a function of injury to the CNS and that its expression is most likely restricted to reactive astrocytes in the glial scar.