A variety of findings seem to functionally link brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and neurotrophin-3 (NT-3), while distinguishing both of these factors from the third member of the neurotrophin family, nerve growth factor (NGF). Here we demonstrate that all three of these neuronal survival molecules bind similarly to the low affinity NGF receptor, but that BDNF and NT-3, unlike NGF, do not act via the high affinity NGF receptor. However, both BDNF and NT-3, but not NGF, bind to full-length and truncated forms of a receptor-like tyrosine kinase, trkB, for which no ligand had previously been identified. In addition to binding BDNF and NT-3, trkB can mediate functional responses to both of these neurotrophins when it is expressed in PC12 cells, although BDNF appears to be the more effective ligand. Thus trkB encodes an essential component of a functional receptor for BDNF and NT-3, but not for NGF. Further evidence predicts the existence of additional functional receptors for the neurotrophins.