The behavioral effects of human nerve growth factor (NGF) were assessed in Fischer-344 rats of two ages: 4 months old (4MO) and 23 months old (23MO). Recent memory was tested in delayed alteration (T maze), reference memory in a place discrimination (water maze), and sensorimotor skills in a battery of sensorimotor tasks. Each rat was preoperatively trained in each task, given either a control procedure (CON), or continuous infusion of human NGF via an osmotic minipump, and retested again 3 weeks later. Two doses of NGF were delivered: 40 micrograms and 160 micrograms (total amount infused over a period of 4 weeks). In 23MO-NGF rats, both doses improved performance in the recent memory task, and in some measures of the place learning task, but had no effect on sensorimotor skills. In 4MO-NGF rats, the low dose impaired performance in the recent memory task, but not in the place discrimination or in the sensorimotor tasks. These data indicate that human NGF can reverse age-related cognitive impairments in old rats. However, the present study also raises the issue of potential detrimental effects that NGF may exert in young normal subjects.