The contributions of cell-cell interactions to the establishment of specific patterns of innervation within target brain regions are not known. To provide an experimental analysis of the regulation of afferent axonal growth, we have developed an in vitro assay system, based on the developing mouse cerebellum, in which afferent axons from a brainstem source of mossy fiber afferents, the basilar pontine nuclei, were cocultured with astroglia or granule neurons purified from the cerebellum. In the absence of cells from the cerebellum, pontine explants produced axons that fasciculated and extended rapidly on a culture surface treated with poly-lysine or laminin. When pontine neurites grew onto cerebellar astroglial cells, outgrowth was more abundant than on substrates alone, suggesting that glial cells provide a positive signal for axon extension. Time-lapse video microscopy indicated that the rate of neurite extension increased from less than 50 microns/hr to more than 100 microns/hr when axonal growth cones moved from the culture substratum onto an astroglial-cell surface. Acceleration of neurite extension was also observed as pontine neurites grew onto other pontine neurites. By contrast, when pontine neurites grew on granule neurons, the appropriate targets of mossy fibers, the length of pontine neurites was greatly reduced. As growing axons terminated on granule neurons, the target cells appeared to provide a “stop-growing signal” for axon extension. The length of pontine neurites decreased with increasing granule neuron density. Two lines of evidence suggested that the stop signal was contact mediated. First, video microscopy showed that pontine growth cones stopped extending after contacting a granule neuron. Second, the length of afferent axons was not reduced when pontine neurites grew at a distance from granule neurons. Competition experiments where both astroglia and granule neurons were plated together suggested that the growth arrest signal provided by granule neurons could override the growth-promoting signal provided by astroglial cells. These results suggest that specific cell- cell interactions regulate the growth of pontine afferent axons within their cerebellar target, with axoaxonal and axoglial interactions promoting axon extension and axon-target cell interactions interrupting axon extension.