Northern blot analysis was used to demonstrate high levels of hippocampus-derived neurotrophic factor/neurotrophin-3 (HDNF/NT-3) mRNA in the embryonic day (E) 13 - 14 and 15 - 16 spinal cord. The level decreased at E18 - 19 and remained the same until postnatal day (P) 1, after which it decreased further to a level below the detection limit in the adult. In situ hybridization revealed that the NT-3 mRNA detected in the developing spinal cord was derived from motoneurons and the decrease seen at E18 - 19 was caused by a reduction in the number of motoneurons expressing NT-3 mRNA. The distribution of NT-3 mRNA-expressing cells in the E15 spinal cord was very similar to the distribution of cells expressing choline acetyltransferase or nerve growth factor receptor (NGFR) mRNA. Moreover, a striking similarity between the developmentally regulated expression of NT-3 and NGFR mRNA was noted in spinal cord motoneurons. A subpopulation of all neurons in the dorsal root ganglia expressed brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) mRNA from E13, the earliest time examined, to adulthood. These results are consistent with a trophic role of NT-3 for proprioceptive sensory neurons innervating the ventral horn, and imply a local action of BDNF for developing sensory neurons within the dorsal root ganglia.