To obtain insight into the site and stage specificity of nerve growth factor (NGF), brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), and neurotrophin-3 (NT-3) action in vivo, we compared the expression patterns of the genes for these three related neurotrophic factors as well as for the NGF receptor in developing and adult rats. Initial embryonic expression of these related neurotrophic factors approximately coincides with the onset of neurogenesis. However, the levels at which the three factors are expressed at this time and throughout the developing nervous system are dramatically different. NT-3 is by far the most highly expressed in immature regions of the CNS in which proliferation, migration, and differentiation of neuronal precursors is ongoing. NT-3 expression dramatically decreases with maturation of these regions. By contrast, BDNF expression is low in developing regions of the CNS and increases as these regions mature. NGF expression varies during the development of discrete CNS regions, but not in any consistent manner compared with NT-3 and BDNF. Despite the dramatic variations, NT-3, BDNF, and NGF do share one striking similarity--high level expression in the adult hippocampus. Our observations are consistent with the idea that NT-3, BDNF, and NGF have paralleled as well as reciprocal roles in vivo.