Chondroitin sulfate proteoglycans (CSPGs) represent a major barrier to regenerating axons in the central nervous system (CNS), but the structural diversity of their polysaccharides has hampered efforts to dissect the structure-activity relationships underlying their physiological activity. By taking advantage of our ability to chemically synthesize specific oligosaccharides, we demonstrate that a sugar epitope on CSPGs, chondroitin sulfate-E (CS-E), potently inhibits axon growth. Removal of the CS-E motif significantly attenuates the inhibitory activity of CSPGs on axon growth. Furthermore, CS-E functions as a protein recognition element to engage receptors including the transmembrane protein tyrosine phosphatase PTPσ, thereby triggering downstream pathways that inhibit axon growth. Finally, masking the CS-E motif using a CS-E-specific antibody reversed the inhibitory activity of CSPGs and stimulated axon regeneration in vivo. These results demonstrate that a specific sugar epitope within chondroitin sulfate polysaccharides can direct important physiological processes and provide new therapeutic strategies to regenerate axons after CNS injury.