Investigations into mechanisms that restrict the recovery of functions after an injury to the brain or the spinal cord have led to the discovery of specific neurite growth inhibitory factors in the adult central nervous system (CNS) of mammals. Blocking their growth-suppressive function resulted in disinhibition of axonal growth, i.e. growth of cultured neurons on inhibitory CNS tissue in vitro and regeneration of injured axons in vivo. The enhanced regenerative and compensatory fibre growth was often accompanied by a substantial improvement in the functional recovery after CNS injury. The first clinical studies to assess the therapeutic potential of compounds that neutralize growth inhibitors or interfere with their downstream signalling are currently in progress. This review discusses recent advances in the understanding of how the 'founder molecule' Nogo-A and other glial-derived growth inhibitors restrict the regeneration and repair of disrupted neuronal circuits, thus limiting the functional recovery after CNS injuries.