The consolidation of a one-trial passive avoidance learning task in the day-old chick involves a number of transient and longer-term biochemical processes, including increased release of glutamate. This study demonstrated that brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a proposed modulator of synaptic transmission and neurotransmitter release, is involved in the cascade associated with memory consolidation in the chick and that its actions were linked to modulation of expression of SNAP-25, syntaxin and synaptophysin, required for exocytosis. Intracerebral injections of 5 microl of antibodies to brain-derived neurotrophic factor into the left and right intermediate medial hyperstriatum ventrale resulted in a dose-dependent reduction in avoidance of an "aversive" bead by 3 h after training. Neurotrophin antibodies (0.5 microg/chick) administered between 1 h before, and up to 30 min after, training induced amnesia by 3 h which was sustained for at least 24 h. Injections of recombinant brain-derived neurotrophic factor (50 microg/ml; 0.5 microg/chick) just before training maintained avoidance in birds trained with a weaker aversant (10% methylanthranilate), such that chicks showed enhanced recall at times (24 h) beyond that when shorter-term forms of memory have decayed. In lysed synaptosomal membranes prepared from chicks injected with antibodies to brain-derived neurotrophic factor there was a decrease in expression of SNAP-25 and syntaxin in the left, but not the right, intermediate medial hyperstriatum ventrale, a region known to be associated with memory formation, which correlated with the decrease in neurotrophin concentration. Thus, these data indicate that brain-derived neurotrophic factor is involved in the formation of a long-term memory for an aversive stimulus and may function as a modulator of presynaptic proteins associated with exocytosis, enabling increases in neurotransmitter release.