Formation of axonal pathways involves a variety of molecules that influence cell-cell interactions. The polysialic acid (PSA) moiety of the neural cell adhesion molecule (NCAM) is present on neuronal surfaces during process outgrowth. Our studies reveal that the removal of PSA causes a decrease in the rate of elongation of retinal cell processes on a substrate of neuronal membranes derived from chick tectum. This effect was partially reversed by antibodies against the L1 adhesion molecule, but not by antibodies against NCAM, N-cadherin, or beta 1-integrins. This predominant effect of PSA on L1 was also observed in short-term, cell-cell adhesion assays, suggesting that PSA promotes optimal outgrowth on neuronal substrates by limiting the consequences of L1-mediated adhesion.