The purification of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), the elucidation of its primary structure, and the subsequent identification of neurotrophin-3 (NT-3) ended the monopoly of NGF as the only well-characterized, target-derived neurotrophic molecule. NGF, BDNF and NT-3 are members of a gene family called neurotrophins. They have strictly conserved domains that determine their basic structure. However, they also have distinctly variable domains that determine their different neuronal specificity mediated by different high affinity receptors, and that share a common low affinity subunit. These similarities and dissimilarities between the members of the neurotrophin gene family are also reflected by their regional distribution, cellular localization and developmental regulation. In this article the neurotrophins are compared with ciliary neurotrophic factor (CNTF), which is a representative of the category of neurotrophic molecules that, according to their regional distribution, developmental expression and cellular localization, do not fulfil the criteria of a target-derived neurotrophic molecule. The physiological and pathophysiological functions of neurotrophins and CNTF are discussed in the context of their potential use for the treatment of traumatic and degenerative diseases of the peripheral and central nervous systems.