Although dendritic growth and differentiation are critical for the proper development and function of neocortex, the molecular signals that regulate these processes are largely unknown. The potential role of neurotrophins was tested by treating slices of developing visual cortex with NGF, BDNF, NT-3, or NT-4 and by subsequently visualizing the dendrites of pyramidal neurons using particle-mediated gene transfer. Specific neurotrophins increased the length and complexity of dendrites of defined cell populations. Basal dendrites of neurons in each cortical layer responded most strongly to a single neurotrophin: neurons in layer 4 to BDNF and neurons in layers 5 and 6 to NT-4. In contrast, apical dendrites responded to a range of neurotrophins. On both apical and basal dendrites, the effects of the TrkB receptor ligands, BDNF and NT-4, were distinct. The spectrum of neurotrophic actions and the laminar specificity of these actions implicate endogenous neurotrophins as regulatory signals in the development of specific dendritic patterns in mammalian neocortex.