Schwann cells (SCs) can support the regeneration of lesioned fiber tracts of the peripheral and central nervous system and have been transplanted alone or in combination with synthetic nerve guides. For neuronal tissue engineering purposes, the cells must be isolated from small biopsies and expanded in vitro. In this study we analyze the impact of cell expansion on 9 different cell parameters, comparing short- and long-term cultured rat SCs, which we refer to as 'young' and 'old' or 'aged' cells, respectively. In comparison to young SCs, old SCs doubled the axonal outgrowth from dorsal root ganglion explants and displayed only one-third as much adhesion to the gray and white matter of spinal cord cryosections. In a 3-dimensional extracellular matrix the two cell populations showed very different cellular responses with regard to cell morphology and cell-cell adhesion. Cell proliferation of old SCs was independent of serum components and was not hampered by contact inhibition. In addition, population doubling times were reduced by a factor of almost three compared to those of young SCs. Despite considerable karyotype changes, with an average of 68.7 chromosomes versus 42 in native rat cells, old SCs did not show any increase in telomerase activity and loss of anchorage dependence--characteristics that are typical of tumor cells. The data also provide biological insights into which cell characteristics (proliferation and adhesion, for example) are functionally clustered and either change or remain constant with aging in vitro. Though the data indicate a lack of tumorigenic transformation coupled with increased neurite outgrowth-promoting activity after extensive SC expansion in vitro, thus suggesting better regeneration qualities, we strongly recommend that in vitro aged rat SCs (>11 passages) should not be employed for tissue engineering.