The neurotrophins are a family of polypeptides that promote differentiation and survival of select peripheral and central neurons. Nerve growth factor, brain-derived neurotrophic factor, neurotrophin-3, neurotrophin-4, and neurotrophin-5 are included in this group. In recent years, tremendous advances have been made in the study of these factors. This has stimulated our review of the field, characterizing the neurotrophins from initial isolation to molecular analysis. The review also discusses their synthesis, localization, and responsive tissues, in both the periphery and CNS. The complex receptor interactions of the neurotrophins are also analyzed, as are putative signal transduction mechanisms. Discussion of the observed and postulated involvement in neuropathological disorders leads to the conclusion that the neurotrophins are involved in the function and dysfunction of the nervous system.