During CNS development, neuroblasts proliferate within germinal zones of the neuroepithelium, and then migrate to their final positions. Although many neurons are thought to migrate along processes of radial glial fibers, increasing evidence suggests environmental factors also influence nerve cell movement. Extracellular matrix molecules are thought to be involved in guiding neuronal migration, and molecules such as NGF and GABA exert trophic effects on immature neurons. The nature of the signals that initiate and direct neuroblast migration, however, is unknown. In vitro, NGF and GABA promote neurite outgrowth from cultured cells, and NGF induces axonal chemotaxis (directed migration along a chemical gradient). At earlier developmental stages, these molecules could influence neuroblast movement. Therefore, we investigated whether these molecules induce embryonic neuronal migration. Using an in vitro microchemotaxis assay, we show that rat embryonic spinal cord neurons migrate toward picomolar NGF and femtomolar GABA beginning at embryonic day 13 (E13). Cells exhibit chemotactic responses to NGF while GABA stimulates chemokinesis (increased random movement). GABA effects are mimicked by muscimol and inhibited by bicuculline and picrotoxin, suggesting GABA motility signals are mediated by GABA receptor proteins. Expression of GABA receptors by embryonic cord cells has been previously reported (Mandler et al., 1990; Walton et al., 1993). We used polymerase chain reaction analysis to demonstrate the presence of NGF and trk mRNA in E13 and E14 cord cells, indicating the cells express message for both NGF and high- affinity NGF receptors. Immunohistochemistry of E13 spinal cord sections indicates that NGF and GABA colocalize in fibers close to the target destinations of migrating neurons, suggesting diffusible gradients of these molecules provide chemoattractant signals to migratory cells. Thus, in vitro, neuroblast migration is induced by specific signaling molecules that are present in the developing spinal cord, and may stimulate migration of embryonic neurons prior to synaptogenesis.