The time course of degeneration of chick retinal ganglion cells was examined with Nissl stains and immunohistochemical methods for detection of substance P-like immunoreactive and nicotinic acetylcholine receptor immunoreactive neurons. Small lesions were made in the retinae, adjacent to the optic nerve head, and were subsequently sectioned parallel to the vitreal surface, permitting direct comparison of normal and axotomized retinal ganglion cells distal to the site of axon damage. At four and six days after surgery, a large number of degenerating cells with clear cytoplasm and pyknotic nuclei were seen. After eight, 10 and 14 days, many retinal ganglion cells displayed a chromatolytic response with dispersed Nissl granules, eccentric nuclei and the cells appeared crenulated. The number of apparently normal neurons in the ganglion cell layer in the axotomized region was reduced by about 50% six days following surgery, by about 70% on the 10th day and by about 75% on the 17th day. The remaining neurons in the ganglion cell layer were identified as displaced amacrine cells. From day 2 onwards, increased numbers of glial cells were present in the optic fibre, ganglion cell and inner plexiform layers. Many glial cells were enlarged and displayed extensive cytoplasmic processes, while others showed mitotic activity. Somata and proximal dendrites of retinal ganglion cells were intensely stained for substance P-like immunoreactivity at two and four days following surgery. At six, eight and 10 days, staining intensity was markedly reduced though still evident and at 14 and 17 days, substance P-like immunoreactivity had virtually disappeared. The persistence of limited substance P-like immuno-reactive ganglion cells 10 days after surgery indicates that these cells have a relatively protracted response to axotomy. Nicotinic acetylcholine receptor-like immunoreactivity in the ganglion cells at two and four days following axotomy was substantially reduced. The majority of faintly stained nicotinic acetylcholine receptor-like immunoreactive ganglion cells, as visualized in counterstained sections, did not exhibit pyknosis in the immediate period following axotomy. Double label studies demonstrated that substance P-like immunoreactive ganglion cells were distinct from the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor-like immuno-reactive ganglion cells. In a second set of experiments, nerve growth factor was then placed into the vitreous humor following intra-retinal axotomy. The somata, dendrites and proximal axons of lesioned substance P-like immunoreactive ganglion cells in these retinae were more intensely stained for a longer period of time and appeared more robust than cells from untreated retinae. Never growth factor had no discernible effect on either unlesioned substance P-like immunoreactive ganglion cells or on normal or axotomized nicotinic acetylcholine receptor-like immunoreactive ganglion cells. These results suggest that nerve growth factor may affect a selected subpopulation of axotomized retinal ganglion cells and enhance their ability to survive axotomy. © 1990.