The addition of polysialic acid (PSA) to neural cell adhesion molecule (NCAM) facilitates axon growth. Here we use Western blots and immunohistochemistry to examine expression of PSA-NCAM during optic nerve regeneration. In lizard, retinal ganglion cell axons become transiently PSA-NCAM positive. By contrast, goldfish RGC axons are PSA-NCAM negative both in normal animals and throughout regeneration with the exception of a PSA-NCAM-positive fascicle arising from newly generated RGCs. Transient sialylation of NCAM in lizard may assist regeneration in the nonpermissive reptilian visual pathway and facilitate the reestablishment of a crude topographic map; down-regulation in the long term may contribute to the breakdown in topography. The lack of sialylation in goldfish presumably reflects the permissive nature of the substrate allowing axon regeneration and the successful reestablishment of a topographic map.