The neurotrophins, a family of related polypeptide growth factors including nerve growth factor (NGF), brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and neurotrophin (NT)-3 and NT-4/5 promote the survival and differentiation of distinctive sets of embryonic neurons. Here we define a new functional role for neurotrophins, as autocrine or local paracrine mediators of vascular smooth muscle cell migration. We have identified neurotrophins, and their cognate receptors, the trk tyrosine kinases, in human and rat vascular smooth muscle cells in vivo. In vitro, cultured human smooth muscle cells express BDNF; NT-3; and trk A, B, and C. Similarly, rat smooth muscle cells expressed all three trk receptors as well as all four neurotrophins. Moreover, NGF induces cultured human smooth muscle cell migration at subnanomolar concentrations. In the rat aortic balloon deendothelialization model of vascular injury, the expression of NGF, BNDF, and their receptors trk A and trk B increased dramatically in the area of injury within 3 days and persisted during the formation of the neointima. In human coronary atherosclerotic lesions, BDNF, NT-3, and NT-4/5, and the trk B and trk C receptors could be demonstrated in smooth muscle cells. These findings suggest that neurotrophins play an important role in regulating the response of vascular smooth muscle cells to injury.