We examined the potential of x-irradiation, at clinical dose levels, to manipulate the cellular constituents and thereby change the consequences of transection injury to adult mammalian central nervous tissue (rat olfactory bulb). Irradiation resulted in reduction or elimination of reactive astrocytes at the site of incision provided that it was delivered within a defined time window postinjury. Under conditions optimal for the elimination of gliosis (15-18 days postinjury), irradiation of severed olfactory bulbs averted some of the degenerative consequences of lesion. We observed that irradiation was accompanied by prevention of tissue degeneration around the site of lesion, structural healing with maintenance of the typical cell lamination, and rescue of some axotomized mitral cells (principal bulb neurons). Thus radiation resulted in partial preservation of normal tissue morphology. It is postulated that intrusive cell populations are generated in response to injury and reactive astrocytes are one such group. Our results suggest that selective elimination of these cells by irradiation enabled some of the regenerative processes that are necessary for full recovery to maintain their courses. The cellular targets of these cells, their modes of intervention in recovery, and the potential role of irradiation as a therapeutic modality for injured central nervous system are discussed.