Expression of the neurotrophin-3 (NT-3) receptor (TrkC) and the effects of NT-3 on signal transduction were investigated in highly enriched populations of embryonic rat hippocampal pyramidal neurons grown in bilaminar cultures. PCR analysis revealed that the predominant trkC isoform is K1, which lacks an insert in the kinase domain. Polyclonal TrkC-specific antibodies stained > 90% of the neurons and revealed a single approximately 145-kDa protein in immunoblots of extracts from adult hippocampus and pyramidal neuron cultures. Addition of NT-3 (50 ng/ml) to these cultures induced the tyrosine phosphorylation of TrkC but not TrkB, as determined by anti-phosphotyrosine staining of immunoprecipitates; thus, all the effects of NT-3 are mediated through TrkC. NT-3 also increased the tyrosine phosphorylation of 42-, 44-, 49-, 55-, 95-, and 145-kDa proteins; the pattern induced by brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) was similar but not identical to that induced by NT-3, suggesting that subtle differences may exist in signaling by TrkB and TrkC receptors. Immunoprecipitation of p21ras from 32P-prelabeled cells showed that NT-3 increased the level of the GTP-bound form of the protein threefold over the control within 5 min. Mitogen-activated protein (MAP) kinase activity was maximally elevated by NT-3 within 2 min and then returned slowly toward baseline over the next 60 min. Tyrosine phosphorylation of phospholipase C-gamma increased rapidly after NT-3, suggesting that this enzyme becomes activated. Consistent with this, the neurotrophin rapidly increased protein kinase C activity as well as intracellular Ca2+ levels. The effects of both NT-3 and BDNF on Ca2+ levels were attenuated in Ca(2+)-free medium, suggesting that both neurotrophins increase Ca2+ flux across the plasma membrane as well as release from internal stores. NT-3 also increased c-Fos expression in > 80% of the cells; the effect peaked at 30 min and declined to baseline by 120 min. Despite the activation of ras-MAP kinase and phosphoinositide signaling pathways, neither NT-3 nor BDNF alone or in combination could sustain hippocampal pyramidal neurons deprived of glial support. We conclude that in this system NT-3 and BDNF do not appear to be acting as classical "neurotrophic" factors and that activation of the MAP kinase pathway is insufficient for the promotion of neuronal survival.