Cutting the axons of the cholinergic neurons that project to the hippocampal formation results in death of most of these cells. Previous studies have shown that administration of nerve growth factor before or at the same time as the lesion will prevent this cell death. Here we demonstrate that basic fibroblast growth factor (FGF) administered into the brain reduces the death of cholinergic neurons in the medial septum and diagonal band of Broca after transection of their axons, in both young adult and aged rats. Moreover, FGF can partially protect against death of cholinergic neurons even when administered two days after axonal transection. These results indicate a possible function for FGF in the normal support of basal forebrain cholinergic neurons, but its range of activity could be wider, for FGF also supports noncholinergic neurons in vitro, it is localized in many of the central nervous system neurons, and it is found in relatively high concentrations in the brain.