Embryonic spinal motor neurons are thought to depend for survival on unidentified factors secreted both by their peripheral targets and by cells within the central nervous system. The neurotrophins are a family of polypeptides required for survival of discrete central and peripheral neuronal populations in vivo and in vitro. In spite of their ability to reduce motor neuron death in vivo, the known neurotrophins have been thought to be without direct effect on motor neurons. Here we show that picomolar concentrations of three of them, brain-derived neurotrophic factor, neurotrophin-3 and neurotrophin-5, can prevent the death of cultured embryonic rat spinal motor neurons. Furthermore, messenger RNA coding for neurotrophins is present at appropriate stages in spinal cord and limb bud, and mRNA for their receptors is found in motor neurons. These neurotrophins may therefore be physiological motor neuron growth factors.