Implantation of silastic membranes between neural tube and somites at somitic levels 20-24 in 30-somite-stage chick embryos results in separation of early migrated neural crest cells of the dorsal root ganglion (DRG) anlage from the neural tube and their death within a few hours [Kalcheim and Le Douarin, (1986) Dev. Biol., 116, 451-460]. The in vivo effects of brain-derived neutrotrophic factor (BNDF) on survival of HNK-1 immunoreactive DRG cells separated from the tube were examined by implantation of laminin-treated silastic membranes (controls) or BDNF/laminin-treated membranes. In the presence of BDNF/laminin-treated membranes, 20/25 grafted embryos fixed 10 h after implantation, contained many rescued cells on the operated side. In contrast, only a few rescued cells on the operated side. In contrast, only a few rescued cells were observed in sections on the operated in 2/11 embryos implanted with laminin-treated silastic membranes, and no rescued cells at all could be detected in embryos implanted with NGF/laminin-treated (seven embryos) or untreated silastic membranes (12 embryos). The data presented support the hypothesis that early survival and differentiation of neural crest-derived sensory cells depend on central nervous system-derived factor(s). Moreover, this is the first evidence for the in vivo activity of BDNF on survival of developing DRG cells.