Intravitreal injections of exogenous CNTF stimulate axon regeneration of RGCs in vivo. Nevertheless, controversy exists over the ability of exogenous CNTF to directly stimulate axon regeneration of mature RGCs. Here we demonstrate that CNTF potently stimulated axon outgrowth of mature RGCs in culture in a JAK/STAT3- and PI3K/AKT-signaling pathway-dependent fashion and stronger than oncomodulin. Additional cAMP elevation or inhibition of MAPK activity increased these effects. In vivo intravitreal injections of exogenous CNTF induced endogenous CNTF expression in astrocytes in a manner that depended on the MAPK/ERK-signaling pathway activation. Reduction of endogenous CNTF expression by MAPK/ERK pathway inhibitors or its absence in CNTF deficient mice markedly reduced the neurite growth-promoting effects of exogenous CNTF. These data demonstrate that CNTF is a potent axon growth-promoting factor for mature RGCs. However, exogenously applied CNTF stimulates RGCs in vivo partially indirectly via a mechanism that depends on astrocyte-derived CNTF.