Acidic and basic fibroblast growth factors (aFGF and bFGF) are known to stimulate mitogenesis in a variety of non-neuronal cell types. Recent work has also established that FGFs can act as neurotrophic factors that promote the survival and regeneration in vitro of a variety of neurons. The present study investigates the distribution of aFGF and bFGF in vivo by using a mitogenic bioassay on AKR-2B cells coupled with Western-blot analysis to estimate the levels of aFGF and bFGF in different areas of the rat nervous system. Acidic FGF and bFGF from extracts of nervous tissue were found to differ considerably in their relative dependencies upon heparin to potentiate their mitogenic activities: the effect of aFGF was strongly dependent upon heparin, whereas the effect of bFGF was only slightly potentiated by heparin. Heparin was also found to stimulate differentially the mitogenic activity of extracts prepared from different areas of the nervous system, indicating that spinal cord, cortex, pituitary, and optic nerve contained different ratios of aFGF to bFGF, whereas sciatic nerve contained extremely high levels of only aFGF. These results were confirmed in Western-blot experiments, using antibodies specific for either aFGF or bFGF. Transection of nerves had opposing effects in sciatic and optic nerves: aFGF rapidly declined in the sciatic nerve distal to the cut, whereas bFGF increased slightly in the distal portion of the cut optic nerve. This differential effect of injury on FGF levels in central versus peripheral nerves may reflect the differential regenerative potential of these two types of nerves.