The molecular determinants controlling the topographically restricted distribution of neural cells in the mammalian CNS are largely unknown. In the mouse, myelin-forming oligodendrocytes are differentially distributed along retinal ganglion cell axons. These axons are myelin free intraretinally and in the most proximal (i.e., retinal) part of the optic nerve, but become myelinated in the distal (i.e., chiasmal) part of the optic nerve. Tenascin protein and mRNA are detectable in increased amounts at the retinal end of the developing optic nerve before the arrival of oligodendrocyte progenitor cells and are restricted to this region in the adult optic nerve. Tenascin is a nonadhesive substrate for oligodendrocytes and their progenitor cells in vitro when offered as a substrate in choice with polyornithine. These observations suggest that tenascin is critical for the establishment and maintenance of the restricted distribution of myelin- forming oligodendrocytes along retinal ganglion cell axons of the mouse.