As neurons grow to their targets their processes elongate, branch and form specialized endings into which are inserted appropriate ion channels. Our aim has been to analyse the role of the extracellular matrix molecules laminin and tenascin in inducing growth and in determining the form and physiological properties of growing neurites. A preparation in which development and regeneration can be followed at the cellular and molecular level in the animal and in tissue culture is the central nervous system (CNS) of the leech. In leech extracellular matrix (ECM) both laminin and tenascin are present; the molecules are structurally similar but not identical to their vertebrate counterparts. Tenascin extracted from leech ECM shows a typical hexabrachial structure whereas laminin shows a typical cruciform structure in rotary shadowed preparations. Leech laminin purified by means of a monoclonal antibody is a molecule of about 1000 kDa, with a polypeptide composition of 340, 200, 180 and 160 kDa. Substrates that contain tenascin or laminin produce rapid and reliable outgrowth of neurites by identified cells. A remarkable finding is that the outgrowth pattern produced by an individual neuron depends in part on its identity, in part on the substrate upon which it is placed. For example, a Retzius cell grows in a quite different configuration and far more rapidly on laminin substrate than does another type of neuron containing the same transmitter (serotonin); and the pattern of outgrowth of the Retzius cell is different on laminin and on the plant lectin Con A (concanavalin A). Thus Con A induces the growth of processes that are shorter, thicker, more curved and contain fewer calcium channels than those grown on laminin. To determine whether laminin can also influence neurite outgrowth in the animal, immunocytological techniques have been used to follow its distribution in the extracellular matrix of normal, developing and regenerating leech CNS. In adult leeches neuronal processes in the CNS are not in contact with laminin which is confined to the surrounding extracellular matrix. In embryos however, laminin staining appears between ganglionic primordia along the pathways that neurons will follow. Similarly, after injury to the adult CNS, laminin accumulates at the very sites at which sprouting and regeneration begin. How the laminin becomes redistributed to appear in the region of injury has not yet been established. Together these findings suggest a key role for laminin and for other extracellular matrix molecules. One attractive speculation is that large molecules situated at a particular region of the CNS may give differential instructions to different types of neurons, causing branching in some, accelerated outgrowth in others and formation of specialized endings in still others. This represents an economical scheme by which relatively few molecules could exert diverse effects.