Background: There has been increasing interest recently in the plasticity of mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) and their potential to differentiate into neural lineages. To unravel the roles and effects of different growth factors in the differentiation of MSCs into neural lineages, we have differentiated MSCs into neural lineages using different combinations of growth factors. Based on previous studies of the roles of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) in neural stem cell isolation in the laboratory, we hypothesized that IGF-1 can enhance proliferation and reduce apoptosis in neural progenitor-like cells (NPCs) during differentiation of MSCs into NCPs.We induced MSCs differentiation under four different combinations of growth factors: (A) EGF + bFGF, (B) EGF + bFGF + IGF-1, (C) EGF + bFGF + LIF, (D) EGF + bFGF + BDNF, and (E) without growth factors, as a negative control. The neurospheres formed were characterized by immunofluorescence staining against nestin, and the expression was measured by flow cytometry. Cell proliferation and apoptosis were also studied by MTS and Annexin V assay, respectively, at three different time intervals (24 hr, 3 days, and 5 days). The neurospheres formed in the four groups were then terminally differentiated into neuron and glial cells.Results: The four derived NPCs showed a significantly higher expression of nestin than was shown by the negative control. Among the groups treated with growth factors, NPCs treated with IGF-1 showed the highest expression of nestin. Furthermore, NPCs derived using IGF-1 exhibited the highest cell proliferation and cell survival among the treated groups. The NPCs derived from IGF-1 treatment also resulted in a better yield after the terminal differentiation into neurons and glial cells than that of the other treated groups.Conclusions: Our results suggested that IGF-1 has a crucial role in the differentiation of MSCs into neuronal lineage by enhancing the proliferation and reducing the apoptosis in the NPCs. This information will be beneficial in the long run for improving both cell-based and cell-free therapy for neurodegenerative diseases. © 2014 Huat et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.