In the normal central nervous system (CNS) the regional expression of the growth-associated protein GAP43 is complementary to the pattern of myelination. This has led us to suspect that myelin-associated neurite growth inhibitors might contribute to the suppression of GAP-43 expression by suppressing sprouting and plastic changes of synaptic terminals in myelinated CNS areas. In order to study the relationship between myelination and GAP-43 expression more directly, we experimentally prevented myelination of the lumbar spinal cord of rats through neonatal X-irradiation. The GAP-43 protein expression in myelin-free spinal cords was analysed by immunohistochemistry and immunoblotting and compared to age-matched normal spinal cords. We found that in the absence of myelination, GAP-43 expression is strongly increased in the spinal cord of 4-week-old rats. GAP-43 was most strongly expressed in descending fibre tracts, where expression in the normal spinal cord is very low. In grey matter the typical regional pattern of GAP-43 expression did not develop; instead GAP-43 expression was high in all regions of the spinal cord. The overall pattern of myelination and GAP-43 expression in the myelin-free cord resembled that of early postnatal stages. This indicates that the regional down-regulation of GAP-43 expression during normal postnatal development did not occur in the myelin-free areas. Our results support the hypothesis that neurite growth inhibitors from oligodendrocytes and CNS myelin suppress sprouting and plastic changes of synaptic terminals in the normal CNS and are thereby involved in regulating the stability of neural connections.