Neuronal activity and trophic factors have been implicated in shaping the connectivity of functional synaptic circuits. We studied the development and regulation by sensory input of the neurotrophins NGF, BDNF and NT-3 in the developing rat visual system. In the occipital cortex, NT-3 mRNA was transiently expressed in the neonate. In contrast, BDNF and NGF mRNA's increased during postnatal development, and reached mature levels around 3 weeks of age. BDNF mRNA was ten times more abundant than NGF mRNA. In the lateral geniculate nucleus (LGN), NT-3 mRNA was also transiently expressed, whereas NGF and BDNF mRNA's did not vary significantly during development. The high-affinity neurotrophin receptors trkB and trkC were expressed both in the developing LGN and occipital cortex. These receptors for BDNF and NT-3, respectively, were expressed at birth, with little change during development. In contrast, trkA mRNA, which encodes the high-affinity NGF receptor, was undetectable in either region. Visual experience differentially modulated expression of NGF and BDNF mRNA's. NGF mRNA was slightly increased after 3 weeks of light-deprivation. In contrast, BDNF mRNA expression in visual cortex was significantly lower than normal in rats dark-reared from birth. Decreased BDNF expression after sensory deprivation was reversible by exposure to light. Thus, all three neurotrophins were detected in visual cortex and LGN. Differences in abundance developmental profiles, and regulation imply distinct functions for each factor in the visual system.