Retrograde axonal transport of nerve growth factor (NGF) signals is critical for the survival, differentiation, and maintenance of peripheral sympathetic and sensory neurons and basal forebrain cholinergic neurons. However, the mechanisms by which the NGF signal is propagated from the axon terminal to the cell body are yet to be fully elucidated. To gain insight into the mechanisms, we used quantum dot-labeled NGF (QD-NGF) to track the movement of NGF in real time in compartmentalized culture of rat dorsal root ganglion (DRG) neurons. Our studies showed that active transport of NGF within the axons was characterized by rapid, unidirectional movements interrupted by frequent pauses. Almost all movements were retrograde, but short-distance anterograde movements were occasionally observed. Surprisingly, quantitative analysis at the single molecule level demonstrated that the majority of NGF-containing endosomes contained only a single NGF dimer. Electron microscopic analysis of axonal vesicles carrying QD-NGF confirmed this finding. The majority of QD-NGF was found to localize in vesicles 50-150 nm in diameter with a single lumen and no visible intralumenal membranous components. Our findings point to the possibility that a single NGF dimer is sufficient to sustain signaling during retrograde axonal transport to the cell body.