The role of calcium-dependent adhesion molecules in the migration of nerve growth cones onto the top of Schwann cells was probed by examination of sensory growth cone-Schwann cell interactions in medium containing either 1.0 mM Ca2+ or 0.1 mM Ca2+. In the presence of 1.0 mM Ca2+ growth cones rapidly migrated onto Schwann cells, spread, and remained for extended periods. However, in 0.1 mM Ca2+ growth cones still made frequent contacts with Schwann cells, but migration onto the upper cell surface was much reduced. This contrast in growth cone-Schwann cell interactions could be switched rapidly by changing the Ca2+ concentration of the culture medium. Growth cones of retinal neurons showed similar calcium-dependence in their migration onto Schwann cells. Antibodies to the calcium-dependent adhesion molecule, N-cadherin, also blocked growth cone migration onto Schwann cells, but antibodies to another neuronal adhesion molecule, L1, had no effect on growth cone-Schwann cell interactions. Immunocytochemical staining for N-cadherin and L1 indicated that growth cones and Schwann cells have N-cadherin on their surfaces, while L1 is present only on axons and growth cones. These results provide two kinds of evidence that N-cadherin is important in the initial interactions of growth cones and Schwann cells.