Fetal septal neurons were grown in vitro under glass coverslips. This sandwich culture method significantly increased general neuronal survival, reduced glial proliferation, and permitted the removal of serum from the growth medium after 5 d in vitro. Thereafter, a simple, and completely defined, medium was used, and the effects of NGF, NGF withdrawal, and protein synthesis inhibition were examined on septal cholinergic neurons. NGF added to septal cultures at the time of plating resulted in a threefold increase in the number of cholinergic neurons seen at 14 d in vitro but had no effect on the survival of non- cholinergic cells. Cholinergic neurons identified by staining for AChE, ChAT, and p75NGFR could be maintained in serum-free, NGF-supplemented medium for over 40 d. When NGF was removed and NGF antibodies added to 14-d-old cultures, less than 30% of cholinergic neurons survived a further 4 d, but when NGF was similarly withdrawn from 35-d-old cultures, over 75% of cholinergic neurons survived. Reapplication of NGF after 3 but not after 12 or more hours of NGF withdrawal from 14-d- old cultures prevented the death of most cholinergic neurons. When NGF was withdrawn from 14-d-old cultures in the presence of the protein synthesis inhibitor cycloheximide, over 75% of the cholinergic neurons survived. These findings suggest that septal cholinergic neurons are dependent on NGF for survival only during a critical period of development and that growth factor-regulated developmental cell death may occur in CNS neurons by activation of programmed cell death requiring protein synthesis.