Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) has emerged as a regulator of development, plasticity and, recently, addiction. Decreased neurotrophic activity may be involved in ethanol-induced neurodegeneration in the adult brain and in the etiology of alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorders. This can occur through decreased expression of BDNF or through inability of the receptor to transduce signals in the presence of ethanol. In contrast, recent studies implicate region-specific up-regulation of BDNF and associated signaling pathways in anxiety, addiction and homeostasis after ethanol exposure. Anxiety and depression are precipitating factors for substance abuse and these disorders also involve region-specific changes in BDNF in both pathogenesis and response to pharmacotherapy. Polymorphisms in the genes coding for BDNF and its receptor TrkB are linked to affective, substance abuse and appetitive disorders and therefore may play a role in the development of alcoholism. This review summarizes historical and pre-clinical data on BDNF and TrkB as it relates to ethanol toxicity and addiction. Many unresolved questions about region-specific changes in BDNF expression and the precise role of BDNF in neuropsychiatric disorders and addiction remain to be elucidated. Resolution of these questions will require significant integration of the literature on addiction and comorbid psychiatric disorders that contribute to the development of alcoholism.