In dissociated cell and wholemount explant cultures of the embryonic trigeminal pathway NGF promotes exuberant elongation of trigeminal ganglion (TG) axons, whereas NT-3 leads to precocious arborization [J. Comp. Neurol. 425 (2000) 202]. In the present study, we investigated the axonal effects of local applications of NGF and NT-3. We placed small sepharose beads loaded with either NGF or NT-3 along the lateral edge of the central trigeminal tract in TG-brainstem intact wholemount explant cultures prepared from embryonic day 15 rats. Labeling of the TG with carbocyanine dye, DiI, revealed that NGF induces local defasciculation and diversion of trigeminal axons. Numerous axons leave the tract, grow towards the bead and engulf it, while some axons grow away from the neurotrophin source. NT-3, on the other hand, induced localized interstitial branching and formation of neuritic tangles in the vicinity of the neurotrophin source. Double immunocytochemistry showed that axons responding to NGF were predominantly TrkA-positive, whereas both TrkA and TrkC-positive axons responded to NT-3. Our results indicate that localized neurotrophin sources along the routes of embryonic sensory axons in the central nervous system, far away from their parent cell bodies, can alter restricted axonal pathways and induce elongation, arborization responses. © 2004 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.