Adult central nervous system (CNS) axons fail to regenerate after injury, and master regulators of the regenerative program remain to be identified. We analyzed the transcriptomes of retinal ganglion cells (RGCs) at 1 and 5 days after optic nerve injury with and without a cocktail of strongly pro-regenerative factors to discover genes that regulate survival and regeneration. We used advanced bioinformatic analysis to identify the top transcriptional regulators of upstream genes and cross-referenced these with the regulators upstream of genes differentially expressed between embryonic RGCs that exhibit robust axon growth vs. postnatal RGCs where this potential has been lost. We established the transcriptional activator Elk-1 as the top regulator of RGC gene expression associated with axon outgrowth in both models. We demonstrate that Elk-1 is necessary and sufficient to promote RGC neuroprotection and regeneration in vivo, and is enhanced by manipulating specific phosphorylation sites. Finally, we co-manipulated Elk-1, PTEN, and REST, another transcription factor discovered in our analysis, and found Elk-1 to be downstream of PTEN and inhibited by REST in the survival and axon regenerative pathway in RGCs. These results uncover the basic mechanisms of regulation of survival and axon growth and reveal a novel, potent therapeutic strategy to promote neuroprotection and regeneration in the adult CNS.