We examined the effects of neurotrophins nerve growth factor (NGF) and neurotrophin-3 (NT-3) on trigeminal axon growth patterns. Embryonic (E13-15) wholemount explants of the rat trigeminal pathway including the whisker pads, trigeminal ganglia, and brainstem were cultured in serum-free medium (SFM) or SFM supplemented with NGF or NT-3 for 3 days. Trigeminal axon growth patterns were analyzed with the use of lipophilic tracer DiI. In wholemount cultures grown in SFM, trigeminal axon projections, growth patterns, and differentiation of peripheral and central targets are similar to in vivo conditions. We show that in the presence of NGF, central trigeminal axons leave the tract and grow into the surrounding brainstem regions in the elongation phase without any branching. On the other hand, NT-3 promotes precocious development of short axon collaterals endowed with focal arbors along the sides of the central trigeminal tract. These neurotrophins also affect trigeminal axon growth within the whisker pad. Additionally, we cultured dissociated trigeminal ganglion cells in the presence of NGF, NT-3, or NGF+NT-3. The number of trigeminal ganglion cells, their size distribution under each condition were charted, and axon growth was analyzed following immunohistochemical labeling with TrkA and parvalbumin antibodies. In these cultures too, NGF led to axon elongation and NT-3 to axon arborization. Our in vitro analyses suggest that aside from their survival promoting effects, NGF and NT-3 can differentially influence axon growth patterns of embryonic trigeminal neurons. (C) 2000 Wiley-Liss, Inc.