Tau, a microtubule-associated protein (MAP) enriched in axons, may have a role in the generation and maintenance of an axonal morphology. Neurons from embryonic day 15 rat cerebellum in culture elaborate two morphologically distinct neurite populations--one with nontapering, elongated axonlike neurites and the other with tapered dendritelike neurites that branch frequently and are selectively stained with antibodies to MAP2. Tau antisense oligonucleotides were utilized in two ways: (1) continuous application of antisense every 24 hr for variable periods of time or (2) application of antisense that was delayed until neurite differentiation was underway. In both cases, 24 hr after the administration of the antisense, tau protein was not detected immunocytochemically. When the antisense was given continuously directly after plating, the neurites persisted as simple minor outgrowths. When antisense was added 72 hr after plating, axonlike neurites were lost, while the remaining neurites continued to grow and increase in complexity. We concluded that the initial establishment of an elongated axonlike neurite is a prerequisite for further neurite maturation; however, once the axon is established, the remaining neurites are able to grow independently and assume a tapered dendritelike appearance.