Classically, neurons communicate by anterograde conduction of action potentials. However, information can also pass backward along axons, a process that is essential during the development of the nervous system. Here we propose a role for such 'retroaxonal' signals in adult learning. We hypothesize that strengthening of a neuron's output synapses stabilizes recent changes in the same neuron's inputs. During learning, the input synapses of many neurons undergo transient changes, resulting in altered spiking activity. If this in turn promotes strengthening of output synapses, the recent synaptic changes will be stabilized; otherwise they will decay. A representation of sensory stimuli therefore evolves that is tailored to the demands of behavioral tasks. We describe a candidate molecular mechanism for this process involving the activation of CREB by retrograde neurotrophin signals.