Abstract The nature of neural plasticity and the factors that influence it vary throughout life. Adult neurons undergo extensive and continual adaptation in response to demands that are quite different from those of early development. We review the main influences on the survival, growth and neurotransmitter expression in adult and ageing sympathetic neurons, comparing these influences to those at work in early development. This “developmental” approach is proposed because, despite the contrasting needs of different phases of development, each phase has a profound infuence on the mechanisms of plasticity available to its successors. Interactions between neurons and their targets, whether effector cells or other neurons, are vital to all of these aspects of neural plasticity. Sympathetic neurons require access to target-derived diffusible neurotrophic factors such as NGF, NT3 and GDNF, as well as to bound elements of the extracellular matrix such as laminin. These factors probably influence plasticity throughout life. In adult life, and even in old age, sympathetic neurons are relatively resistant to cell death. However, they continue to require target-derived diffusible and bound factors for their maintenance, growth and neurotransmitter expression. Failure to maintain appropriate neuronal function in old age, for example in the breakdown of homeostasis, may result partly from a disturbance of the dynamic, trophic relationship between neurons and their targets. However, there is no clear evidence that this is due to a failure of targets to synthesize neurotrophic factors. On the neural side of the equation, altered responsiveness of sympathetic neurons to neurotrophic factors suggests that expression of the trk and p75 neurotrophin receptors contributes to neuronal survival, maintenance and growth in adulthood and old age. Altered receptor expression may therefore underlie the selective vulnerability of some sympathetic neurons in old age. The role of neural connectivity and activity in the regulation of synthesis of target-derived factors, as well as in neurotransmitter dynamics, is reviewed.