To study the selectivity of neurotrophic actions in the brain, we analyzed the actions of several known growth factors on septal cholinergic, pontine cholinergic, and mesencephalic dopaminergic neurons in culture. Similar to nerve growth factor (NGF), basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF) stimulated choline acetyltransferase activity in septal cultures. In contrast to NGF, bFGF also enhanced dopamine uptake in mesencephalic cultures and stimulated cell proliferation in all 3 culture types. Insulin and the insulin-like growth factors I and II stimulated transmitter-specific differentiation and cell proliferation in all culture types. Epidermal growth factor (EGF) produced a small increase in dopamine uptake by mesencephalic cells and stimulated cell proliferation in all culture types. In septal cultures, bFGF was most effective when given at early culture times, NGF at later times. The stimulatory actions of bFGF and insulin did not require the presence of glial cells and were not mediated by NGF. In mesencephalic cultures, the stimulation of dopamine uptake by bFGF and EGF was dependent on glial proliferation. The results suggest different degrees of selectivity of the neurotrophic molecules. NGF and, very similarly, bFGF seem to influence septal cholinergic neurons directly and rather selectively, whereas the neurotrophic actions of insulin and the insulin-like growth factors appear to be more general.