Ensheathment and myelination of axons by Schwann cells in the peripheral nervous system requires contact with a basal lamina. The molecular mechanism(s) by which the basal lamina promotes myelination is not known but is likely to reflect the activity of integrins expressed by Schwann cells. To initiate studies on the role of integrins during myelination, we characterized the expression of two integrin subunits, beta 1 and beta 4, in an in vitro myelination system and compared their expression to that of the glial adhesion molecule, the myelin-associated glycoprotein (MAG). In the absence of neurons, Schwann cells express significant levels of beta 1 but virtually no beta 4 or MAG. When Schwann cells are cocultured with dorsal root ganglia neurons under conditions promoting myelination, expression of beta 4 and MAG increased dramatically in myelinating cells, whereas beta 1 levels remained essentially unchanged. (In general agreement with these findings, during peripheral nerve development in vivo, beta 4 levels also increase during the period of myelination in sharp contrast to beta 1 levels which show a striking decrease.) In cocultures of neurons and Schwann cells, beta 4 and MAG appear to colocalize in nascent myelin sheaths but have distinct distributions in mature sheaths, with beta 4 concentrated in the outer plasma membrane of the Schwann cell and MAG localized to the inner (periaxonal) membrane. Surprisingly, beta 4 is also present at high levels with MAG in Schmidt-Lanterman incisures. Immunoprecipitation studies demonstrated that primary Schwann cells express beta 1 in association with the alpha 1 and alpha 6 subunits, while myelinating Schwann cells express alpha 6 beta 4 and possibly alpha 1 beta 1. beta 4 is also downregulated during Wallerian degeneration in vitro, indicating that its expression requires continuous Schwann cell contact with the axon. These results indicate that axonal contact induces the expression of beta 4 during Schwann cell myelination and suggest that alpha 6 beta 4 is an important mediator of the interactions of myelinating Schwann cells with the basal lamina.