The hypothesis that NGF could play a role in the plasticity of the developing mammalian visual cortex was tested in monocularly deprived (MD) rats. In particular, we have asked whether an exogenous supply of NGF could prevent the changes in ocular dominance distribution induced by monocular deprivation. Hooded rats were monocularly deprived for 1 month, starting at postnatal day 14 (P14), immediately before eye opening, by means of eyelid suture. In eight rats, only monocular deprivation was performed; in eight rats, monocular deprivation was combined with intraventricular injections of beta-NGF, and in three rats, with intraventricular injections of cytochrome C. Injections (2 microliters) were given every other day for a period of 1 month. Single neuron activity was recorded in the primary visual cortex of MD rats, MD rats treated with NGF, and MD rats treated with cytochrome C at the end of the deprivation period, and in normal rats of the same age. We found that monocular deprivation caused a striking change in the ocular dominance distribution of untreated MD rats, reducing binocular cells by a factor of two and increasing by a factor of eight the number of cells dominated by the nondeprived eye. In MD NGF-treated rats, the ocular dominance distribution was indistinguishable from the normal. Cytochrome C treatment was completely ineffective in preventing the ocular dominance shift induced by monocular deprivation. To test whether NGF affected cortical physiology or interfered with transmission of visual information, we evaluated in NGF-treated rats the spontaneous discharge and the orientation selectivity. We found these functional properties to be in the normal range. We conclude that NGF is effective in preventing the effects of monocular deprivation in the rat visual cortex and suggest that NGF is a crucial factor in the competitive processes leading to the stabilization of functional geniculocortical connections during the critical period.