We previously showed the presence of receptors for granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF) on tumor tissues and tumor cell lines that are derived from the neural crest. To determine whether normal neural cells express functional GM-CSF receptors, we isolated and analyzed primary rat brain cells, including microglia, astrocytes, and oligodendrocytes. Scatchard analysis of equilibrium binding of 125I-GM-CSF to primary rat oligodendrocytes showed an average of 1,110 GM-CSF binding sites per cell, with a kd of 20 pmol/L. In six separate experiments, no specific binding was detectable on the astrocyte population. Microglia were used in competitive binding experiments with oligodendrocytes, and addition of microglia did not increase the specific binding of labeled ligand to oligodendrocytes. In dose- response assays, we measured 3H-thymidine uptake in rat oligodendrocytes, microglia and control murine 32D cells stimulated with various concentrations of GM-CSF. Over concentration ranges of 0.025 to 1000 pmol/L, cell proliferation and peak 3H-thymidine incorporation was observed at approximately 30 pmol/L for both the control cells and the oligodendrocytes. However, the microglial cells did not proliferate in response to GM-CSF. These data indicate the presence of a functional receptor for GM-CSF on primary rat oligodendrocytes, and suggest that hematopoietic growth factors such as GM-CSF may play a role in nerve cell development, function, or response to injury.