Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) supports the survival of a specific set of neurons in the vertebrate nervous system. Here we show that the rat BDNF gene consists of four short 5' exons and one 3' exon encoding the mature BDNF protein. Eight different BDNF mRNAs with four different 5' ends and two alternative polyadenylation sites are transcribed from this gene. BDNF mRNAs containing exons I, II, and III are expressed predominantly in the brain, whereas exon IV transcripts predominate in the lung and heart. mRNAs containing exons I, II, and III increase markedly in the brain after kainic acid-induced seizures, whereas exon IV mRNA increases only slightly. Several transcription initiation sites were mapped upstream of the four 5' exons, and transfection of promoter-reporter gene constructs confirmed that these sequences act as promoters. Combined, the data demonstrate that alternative usage of four promoters within the BDNF gene and differential splicing control tissue-specific and seizure-induced expression of BDNF mRNA.