The mRNAs of nerve growth factor (NGF) and brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) exhibit a similar, though not identical, regional and cellular distribution in the rodent brain. In situ hybridization experiments have shown that BDNF, like NGF, is predominantly expressed by neurons. The neuronal localization of the mRNAs of these two neurotrophic molecules raised the question as to whether neuronal activity might be involved in the regulation of their synthesis. After we had demonstrated that depolarization with high potassium (50 mM) resulted in an increase in the levels of both BDNF and NGF mRNAs in cultures of hippocampal neurons, we investigated the effect of a large number of transmitter substances. Kainic acid, a glutamate receptor agonist, was by far the most effective in increasing BDNF and NGF mRNA levels in the neurons, but neither N-methyl-D-aspartic acid (NMDA) nor inhibitors of the NMDA glutamate receptors had any effect. However, the kainic acid mediated increase was blocked by antagonists of non-NMDA receptors. Kainic acid also elevated levels of BDNF and NGF mRNAs in rat hippocampus and cortex in vivo. These results suggest that the synthesis of these two neurotrophic factors in the brain is regulated by neuronal activity via non-NMDA glutamate receptors.