Fibroblast growth factors (FGFs) are known to stimulate mitogenesis in a variety of non-neuronal cell types and to support the survival in vitro of many neuronal cell types. The physiological role of FGFs in the CNS is currently not known. The present study determined the distribution in the rat CNS of a prominent member of the FGF family, basic FGF (bFGF). Immunohistochemical analysis showed that bFGF immunoreactivity was found predominantly in astrocytes throughout all regions of the CNS. In contrast, only a few neuronal populations were found to contain bFGF immunoreactivity, most prominent among them, neurons in the CA2 area of the hippocampus. This predominant localization of bFGF to astrocytes was confirmed by two other observations: (1) highly enriched cultures of astrocytes contained bFGF immunoreactivity and bioactivity, whereas highly enriched cultures of cerebral cortical neurons contained no detectable bFGF, and (2) neonatal rat cerebral cortex, which contains only a few differentiated astrocytes, also contained no detectable bFGF immunoreactivity and only low amounts of bFGF bioactivity. Immunocytochemical analysis also suggested that bFGF immunoreactivity was present in the nucleus as well as the cytoplasm of astrocytes and CA2 neurons. This nuclear localization was confirmed by EM analysis of the intracellular distribution of the immunoperoxidase reaction product. In addition, preparations of both nuclear and soluble fractions of brain extracts contained bFGF immunoreactivity and bioactivity. These data suggest that bFGF might be involved in mediating astrocytic influences on the late postnatal maturation and plasticity in the CNS, and that the nuclear localization of bFGF within astrocytes may play an important role in the differentiation of these cells. In addition, bFGF may play a similar role in a few specific neuronal populations, such as CA2 hippocampal neurons.