Basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF) is a potent trophic factor for neurons and astrocytes and recently has been implicated in the pathology of Alzheimer's disease. In order to better understand the role of bFGF in normal brain function and during pathology, we have analyzed its anatomical distribution and its response to injury in the CNS. Double-staining immunohistochemistry showed that bFGF immunoreactivity was localized in astrocytes, in select neuronal populations, and occasionally in microglial cells throughout the normal rat brain. Neuronal populations that showed bFGF immunoreactivity included septohippocampal nucleus, cingulate cortex, subfield CA2 of the hippocampus, cerebellar Purkinje cells, cerebellar deep nuclei, facial nerve nucleus, and the motor and spinal subdivisions of the trigeminal nucleus and facial nerve nucleus. The pattern of bFGF immunoreactivity in the hippocampus was examined following entorhinal cortex lesion, or fimbria-fornix transection. After entorhinal cortex lesion, bFGF immunoreactivity increased in the outer molecular layer of the dentate gyrus ipsilateral to the lesion. The lesion effect on bFGF immunoreactivity was expressed as an increase in the number of bFGF astrocytes, as an increase in the intensity of bFGF immunoreactivity within astrocytes, and as an increase of bFGF immunoreactivity in the surrounding extracellular matrix, relative to the contralateral side. The time course and pattern of reorganization paralleled the sprouting of septal cholinergic terminals in response to the same type of lesion, suggesting that bFGF may play an important role in lesion-induced plasticity. After transection of the fimbria-fornix, chronic infusion of bFGF appeared to preserve NGF receptors on neurons within the medial septal complex and, as previously reported, prevent the death of medial septal neurons. Therefore, it appears that bFGF infusion, which has been shown to increase the synthesis of NGF by astrocytes (Yoshida and Gage, 1991), also helps enable neurons to respond to NGF. This suggests that after injury bFGF may participate in a cascade of neurotrophic events, directly and indirectly facilitating neuronal repair and/or promoting neuronal survival.