Although it is well known that magnocellular cholinergic basal forebrain neurons are trophically responsive to nerve growth factor (NGF) and contain NGF receptors (NGFr), the exact distribution of forebrain NGFr‐immunoreactive neurons and the degree to which cholinergic neurons are colocalized with them have remained in question. In this study we employed a very sensitive double‐labelling method and examined in the same tissue section the distribution and cellular features of NGFr‐positive and choline acetyltransferase (ChAT)‐immunolabelled neurons within the rat basal forebrain. Throughout this region the majority of magnocellular basal forebrain neurons were immunoreactive for both NGFr and ChAT. However, a small percentage of neurons in the ventral portion of the vertical limb of the diagonal band of Broca were immunoreactive only for NGFr, whereas a larger population of magnocellular neurons in the substantia innominata exhibited only ChAT immunoreactivity. No NGFr‐immunoreactive cells were found associated with ChAT‐positive neurons in the striatum, neocortex, or hippocampus, and no single‐labelled NGFr‐immunoreactive neurons were found outside the basal forebrain area, except for a large number of positive‐labelled cells along the ventricular walls of the third ventricle. In addition to its function in maintaining the normal integrity of the basal forebrain and cholinergic, peripheral sympathetic, and neural‐crest‐derived sensory neurons, NGF may also have a role in the growth of these neurons after damage to the nervous system. To examine this postulate the hippocampus was denervated of its septal input and examined 8 weeks later. Two populations of neurons were found to have undergone collateral sprouting—namely, the midline magnocellular cholinergic neurons of the dorsal hippocampus and the sympathetic noradrenergic neurons of the superior cervical ganglion. Both of these neuronal populations also stained strongly for NGFr. In contrast, the small intrinsic cholinergic neurons of the hippocampus exhibited neither sprouting response nor staining for NGFr. In view of these results, we suggest that the differing sprouting responses demonstrated by these three neuronal populations may be due to their responsiveness to NGF, as indicated by the presence or absence of NGF receptors.