The brain produces two brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) transcripts, with either short or long 3' untranslated regions (3' UTRs). The physiological significance of the two forms of mRNAs encoding the same protein is unknown. Here, we show that the short and long 3' UTR BDNF mRNAs are involved in different cellular functions. The short 3' UTR mRNAs are restricted to somata, whereas the long 3' UTR mRNAs are also localized in dendrites. In a mouse mutant where the long 3' UTR is truncated, dendritic targeting of BDNF mRNAs is impaired. There is little BDNF in hippocampal dendrites despite normal levels of total BDNF protein. This mutant exhibits deficits in pruning and enlargement of dendritic spines, as well as selective impairment in long-term potentiation in dendrites, but not somata, of hippocampal neurons. These results provide insights into local and dendritic actions of BDNF and reveal a mechanism for differential regulation of subcellular functions of proteins.