Neurotrophins are critical to the development and maintenance of the mammalian central nervous system. Among them is brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), whose synthesis and release is targeted by activation of glutamate receptors. Perturbation of this process probably underlies neurodegenerative and psychiatric disorders. A naturally occurring variation in humans, in the form of a common single-nucleotide polymorphism in the pro region of the polypeptide at codon 66 (Val66-->Met), affects processing of the pro-BDNF polypeptide and its activation-dependent release. This variant is associated with differences in the volume of the hippocampal formation and with anxiety and depression-related phenotypes. Convergent findings supporting a role for BDNF in alterations to hippocampal structure and behavior are found in a "humanized" BDNF transgenic mouse. Also, recent human genetic studies have supported a role of BDNF signaling in addictive behaviors by allele-, genotype-, and haplotype-based association of the TrkB gene, which encodes the cognate receptor for BDNF, with alcohol dependence. A better understanding of the influence of BDNF-mediated pathways in cell survival and plasticity will aid in developing new approaches to restoring normal function in disease states.