Nerve growth factor promotes the survival of populations of sensory and sympathetic neurons. Although ganglia have been used for classical assays of neurotrophin action, knowledge is incomplete regarding the spatial arrangements through which neurotrophins are delivered to responsive cells within the ganglia and their attached nerve trunks. Whereas populations of ganglionic neurons may be capable of responding to a particular neurotrophin in vitro, the spectrum of receptor components and neurotrophins expressed by the various neuronal and nonneuronal cells comprising the ganglia in adult rats remains to be elucidated in vivo. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) mRNA was expressed by a population of small to medium sized neurons in all sensory ganglia except in the mesencephalic nucleus of the trigeminal nerve. Interestingly, BDNF immunoreactivity was detected in a more widespread population of neurons of these ganglia, as well as in scattered satellite cells of both sensory and sympathetic ganglia. These nonneuronal cells also expressed mRNA encoding a truncated form of the BDNF receptor, trkBtrunc, and full-length transcripts of trkB appeared to be confined to neuronal populations. Several other components of neurotrophin receptors (low-affinity neurotrophin receptor, trk, and trkC) were prominently expressed by different populations of neuronal cells in sympathetic and sensory ganglia, but they were not detected in nonneuronal cells. Neither nerve growth factor nor neurotrophin-3 mRNAs were detected in these ganglia. Unexpectedly, BDNF and trkBtrunc expression was detected in oligodendrocytes myelinating the central processes of sensory neurons. Schwann cells did not express detectable quantities of either entity, thereby establishing a dramatic boundary delineated by neurotrophin/neurotrophin receptor expression that coincided with the interface between the oligodendroglia of the central nervous system (CNS) and Schwann cells of the peripheral nervous system (PNS). Localization of BDNF expression to an additional population of nonneuronal cells--satellite cells within sensory and sympathetic ganglia--suggest a more extensive role for neurotrophic factors than originally encompassed by the target-derived neurotrophic-factor-concept paradigm. These data support the hypothesis of a possible autocrine or paracrine trophic interaction between populations of neuronal and nonneuronal cells in the peripheral nervous system. BDNF expression in oligodendrocytes but not in Schwann cells at the CNS/PNS junction may provide an additional means of maintaining cell-appropriate connections in the nervous system.