The molecular composition of the substrate is of critical importance for neurite extension by isolated identified leech nerve cells in culture. One substrate upon which rapid growth occurs in defined medium is a cell-free extract of extracellular matrix (ECM) that surrounds the leech central nervous system (CNS). Here we report the co-purification of neurite-promoting activity with a laminin-like molecule. High molecular mass proteins from leech ECM purified by gel filtration exhibited increased specific activity for promoting neurite outgrowth. The most active fractions contained three major polypeptide bands of ca. 340, 250 and 220 kDa. Electron microscopy of rotary-shadowed samples showed three macromolecules, one of which had a cross-shaped structure similar to vertebrate laminin. A second six-armed molecule resembled vertebrate tenascin and a third rod-like molecule resembled vertebrate collagen type IV. The most active fractions contained a protein of ca. 1 MDa on non-reducing gels with disulphide-linked subunits of ca. 220 and 340 kDa, with cross-shaped laminin-like molecules. We conclude that a laminin-like molecule represents a major neurite promoting component present in leech ECM. The experiments represent a first step in determining the location of leech laminin within the CNS and assessing its role in neurite outgrowth during development and regeneration.